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Driverless car bill a disaster waiting to happen

Despite almost daily reports of crashes or non-responsive technology on public roads involving driverless cars, Congress is trying to hitch a new law to Santa’s sleigh in the form of the year-end-keep-the-government-open spending bill, just ahead of a new majority come January.

Today, all motor vehicle operators, particularly commercial drivers, are required to pass a license examination demonstrating a minimum level of competence before sharing the road with anyone else. Yet, this driverless car bill has no licensing requirements for robots and thus no objective validation tests for vehicle safety before allowing the sale of potentially hundreds of thousands of driverless vehicles, all at the behest of, and to the benefit of, the auto and tech industries.

In addition to not being licensed as safe, if passed as proposed, the bill would exempt these computer-driven machines from the liability that humans face when getting behind the wheel. When driverless cars crash — either into one of the 270 million human driven cars already on the road, or pedestrians or bicyclists — the humans involved may be out of luck when it comes to legal protection. While the bill’s authors claim to have addressed a liability loophole involving binding arbitration and other underhanded tactics, there remain hidden surprises for crash victims. The most egregious is that the bill’s suspension of arbitration ends when federal rules are put in place. This is cold comfort. Defective Takata airbag inflators, GM ignition switches and Firestone tires were all also subject to federal rules, which were obviously violated resulting in many fatalities. At least their victims had access to the civil justice system providing an opportunity to seek their day in court.

There’s even more mischief under the tree in terms of giveaways to the industry in the bill. Once steering wheels and brake pedals are removed, it won’t be long until campfire seating arrives. Ideally, such freedom of design could potentially give those who use wheelchairs and others in the disability community greater access to the wonders of modern transportation. Except there’s a reason vehicles are designed with passengers facing forward in upright and secured positions: safety. Current occupant protection standards allow airbags to deploy and crumple zones to form, saving thousands of lives annually. The results when we ignore the lessons of physics are all too clear — as the nation saw with the stretch limousine crash earlier this year which killed all 18 occupants of the vehicle.

Finally, one can only assume the lack of a mandate for collecting and accessing crash data is intended as a stocking stuffer for manufacturers. Airplanes, boats and even conventional cars driven by people have uniform requirements for data recording when they crash so that objective third parties (in other words, not the manufacturer) can investigate and figure out what happened. This will be needed more than ever in the context of autonomous vehicle technology to determine if the crash was caused by the computer, the human operator, the road or even another car operated by a drunk driver. Objective information about crashes could help the industry improve and ensure the public has confidence in the technology. But this will be nearly impossible to achieve without uniform data elements like the ones that exist in modern aviation technology. The AV START Act manages to delegate how much crash data, what data and how that data is made accessible, to the least objective party possible — the manufacturer.

At the end of Charles Dickens’ famous tale, “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge sees the error of focusing too much on his short-term self-interest and embraces the essence of the holiday: showing goodwill toward all, including the least among us like Tiny Tim. There’s still time for Congress to avoid spectral nighttime visits this Christmas Eve and spread goodwill by providing a true path for long-term transportation safety through the responsible development of driverless car technology. But it is almost midnight.

Jason Levine is executive director of The Center for Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based, member supported non-profit advocacy organization (www.autosafety.org).

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