Nine years after an employee warned of a flaw in certain ignition switches, General Motors began recalling millions of vehicles to repair the defect. Nine years after the first recall for Takata airbags that can shower vehicle occupants with deadly shrapnel, the company still hasn’t replaced all the defective components, and some drivers remain at risk. With that sort of track record, why should the public trust these and other carmakers to deliver on promises to revolutionize road safety through the introduction of self-driving vehicles?
That’s one question a prominent consumer advocacy group raises in a new report, which suggests that motorists should treat the ambitious declarations of autonomous-vehicle developers with heavy doses of skepticism. Consumer Watchdog, a California-based nonprofit, says that the risks of autonomous vehicles are as great as the potential rewards. The organization urges regulators to formulate mandatory rules to safeguard the riding public, rather than allow the industry to adhere to its own voluntary standards.
“The unprecedented number of recalls in recent years suggests a dangerously cavalier attitude toward public safety on the part of vehicle manufacturers,” its authors wrote in their report, entitled Self-Driving Vehicles: The Threat to Consumers.
“It raises serious concerns as to whether manufacturers are presently, or will be, capable of building safe robot cars and trucks, which will far exceed the complexity and sophistication of today’s vehicles.”
Even without autonomous technology, the recent spike in recalls has been significant. In 2014, automakers issued a record 803 recalls involving 63.9 million vehicles. In 2015, the record was broken again, with automakers recalling 868 recalls for 51.3 million vehicles. One of those included a Fiat Chrysler Automobiles recall of 1.4 million vehicles related to a cybersecurity flaw that left safety-critical vehicle controls vulnerable to hackers.
The Consumer Watchdog warnings come at a critical juncture. Lawmakers in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate plan to introduce legislation before their August recess that would shape the testing and deployment of self-driving vehicles. Early drafts of that legislation suggest Congress would give automakers and tech companies wide latitude to put automated vehicles on U.S. roads while hiding much of their behind-the-scenes work from the public.
“History shows us, with airbags and seatbelts, that unless there’s a mandate, it’s not accomplished.”
– Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts
Among other things, the legislation—if enacted as proposed, without further amendment—would prohibit regulators from requiring pre-market approval of vehicles prior to deployment, block states from setting their own rules, and define crash, testing, and validation data as “confidential business information,” according to Reuters. For consumers and safety regulators, that’s problematic. Keeping data that emerges from crashes and emergency scenarios under wraps prevents other automakers from learning how to avoid similar events. Likewise, keeping data confidential makes it harder for crash investigators and insurance companies to probe the safety of specific vehicles and overall fleets.
Consumer Watchdog cautions that uncertainty could cause insurance rates to spike, rather than decrease as many transportation experts expect once autonomous vehicles are commonplace.
“Risks that today are not especially relevant to cars and trucks—such as privacy, security, or even mass terrorism—will be much more of a threat to robot vehicles,” the report said. “Insurance companies will likely assess the heightened risk/threat matrix of the new and untested technologies and the hybrid highway as a basis to argue for substantial rate increases in the near term.” That’s the inverse of what proponents suggest with their assertions that autonomous cars that don’t crash will result in lower insurance costs.
In a recent Senate subcommittee hearing on autonomous vehicles, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said that regular motorists and consumers would be harmed by an approach to autonomy that doesn’t include mandatory safety benchmarks.
“History shows us, with airbags and seatbelts, that unless there’s a mandate, it’s not accomplished,” Markey said. “The industry moves slowly. The best move quickly, and the worst move slowly and cause a lot of the damage out on our highways. As we start this era and have this discussion, there’s a repetition syndrome to a certain extent, with the industry promoting all the wonderful examples of it. Just talking about all the great things and ignoring the discussion, we ignore the central concerns that people will have about the safety of their families, and there will be a lot of concerns.”
Markey was a frequent critic during Congressional hearings that probed the Takata airbag and GM ignition-switch cases. But with surveys showing Americans are afraid of riding in self-driving vehicles, and with consumer acceptance an acknowledged hurdle ahead, automakers and tech companies might consider the possibility that mandatory rules that emphasize transparency could go a long way toward establishing the public trust they’re so eager to develop.