Friday, September 23, 2016
Governments New Highly Automated Vehicle Guidelines Fail to Protect the American Public
The recent guidelines published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration NHTSA abdicate its mandate which would have resulted in thoughtful, thorough, national regulations that ensure, transparency, safety, and accountability, instead they are simply deffering to the industry to regulate itself and passing the buck down to the states. The guidelines clearly lack legally enforceable regulations and may allow the possibility of states weakening existing liability laws that protect consumers and permit manufacturers of unsafe and malfunctioning vehicles to escape responsibility for harm caused when a highly automated vehicle (HAV) crashes.
NHTSA must not delegate its regulatory responsibilities to the states. NHTSA must issue a minimum federal performance standard for Highly Automated Vehicles (HAV’s), and make clear there is no preemption. Designers and manufacturers must be held accountable for any harm HAVs cause.
This announcement should not be seen as an alternative to comprehensive safety standards, thorough oversight and strong enforcement. The promising benefits of HAVs are great, but the potential problems are too serious and the public safety risks are too momentous to be left to industry alone. Recent incidents involving the recall of tens of millions of vehicles and needless deaths and injuries due to faulty General Motors’ ignition switches, dangerous Takata airbags and cheating emissions systems in Volkswagen vehicles highlight how the industry easily conceals problems from both the public and the government.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) must use its federal regulatory authority to assure the American public of the safety of HAVs. Safety performance standards encourage competition among automotive companies because they help to assure a market for the real innovators and suppliers. The manufacturers always complain about new federal protections, but HAVs are a whole new technology with great promise but also with the potential for serious public harm.
The advent of this new technology and its release is happening so quickly that the NHTSA claims it is not ready to issue minimum regulatory performance standards. NHTSA has surrendered its Congressional mandate to manufacturers and the States. This is abhorrent of the National Traffic Safety Act. In doing so, it appears that we’re heading toward a hodge-podge of state regulations or no regulation whatsoever.
The addition of HAVs to the marketplace represents a brand new area in which vehicle manufacturers will compete for sales. There are billions of dollars of profits at stake. The more “autonomous” features that are offered, the greater the marketing opportunities. This certainly explains the frenzy of car companies to market each feature and to be the “first” with the “most” automated features.
Those who would market and profit from this technology – vehicle manufacturers and their suppliers – have organized major lobbying efforts suggesting that laws should be passed granting them immunity and shielding them from liability when injuries and deaths happen because of the failure of this new technology. They want taxpayers and state health care systems to fund their mistakes. That's not fair!
If corporations are confident that their highly automated vehicles will work properly and safely, why do they want immunity? Why should this industry get blanket protection? Why should they even be worried about having to accept responsibility if their technology fails? Because history has proven that vehicle design changes, and especially those involving new technology, can cause injuries and deaths.
In their rush to introduce as many computer driven safety features as possible, and reap the profits of increased sales, car manufacturers must not put vehicles on our highways unless each feature has been properly designed and fully tested to be certain of their effectiveness. To fail to do so would surely expose the motoring public to new and unidentifiable risks of injury and death.
Without well thought out regulations, the marketplace must demand that each company that participates in the design, manufacture or sale of highly automated vehicles commit – publicly – to take full responsibility, including accepting legal liability – for collisions and their consequences when such features fail.
Given the extensive deference the NHTSA has shown to the industry when it comes to the safety of HAVs, the industry must chose to accept responsibility and accountability for the self-driving vehicles it puts on America’s highways and to which American citizens entrust the lives of our families. As companies work to develop HAVs and collision avoidance technology (CAT) such as “lane departure warnings,” “lane departure steering control,” “auto brake features,” “frontal object detection,” “rearward object detection,” and “auto pilot,” it has become increasingly clear that consumers are totally reliant on manufacturer’s skills and willingness to provide the safest available systems. While the industries’ efforts, as well as the voluntary guidelines promulgated by NHTSA, are a good first step, countless safety concerns remain when it comes to HAVs and CAT that could expose consumers to unnecessary harm if they are not properly designed and fully tested. Recognizing this, every manufacturer should follow the lead of Volvo Cars, whose chief executive officer recently stated his company’s commitment:
“Manufacturers should be held responsible if their autonomous technology causes car accidents. We are the suppliers of this technology and we are liable for everything the car is doing in autonomous mode.” –President and CEO Hakan Samuelsson, October, 2015.
As HAVs become a reality, with the singular goal of making highway travel safer, it is vital that American consumers be able to trust that each manufacturer has made its vehicles safe and reliable. To this end, every other vehicle and component manufacturer must join with Volvo Cars and make a public pledge to accept responsibility for harm and injury resulting from a collision that occurs because of the failure of an autonomous feature or when one of its automated systems either malfunctions or fails to perform as intended. Absent such a pledge how can the NHTSA, the states and the American Public trust the safety of their families to these highly automated vehicles?
The guidelines do appear to indicate DOT is planning to address these issues and seeking public comment for this new system of transportation; but it must not shy away from assuring public safety with minimum federal vehicle safety standards and means to hold manufactures responsible and accountable. It should not rely on mere guidance, deference to the industry and each individual state. NHTSA must not delegate its regulatory responsibilities to the states. NHTSA must issue a minimum federal performance standard for Highly Automated Vehicles (HAV’s), and make clear there is no preemption. Designers and manufacturers must be held responsible and accountable for any caused when an HAV does not perform as intended or malfunctions.