Public interest groups urge Congress to change AV START Act

In a letter to Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, 27 representatives from various public interest groups urge a retooling of this self-driving car act.

Kyle Hyatt Former news and features editor
Kyle Hyatt (he/him/his) hails originally from the Pacific Northwest, but has long called Los Angeles home. He's had a lifelong obsession with cars and motorcycles (both old and new).
Kyle Hyatt
3 min read

The American Vision for Safer Transportation Through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START Act), a piece of legislation designed to help jumpstart autonomous vehicle development, is running into more trouble.

A group of 27 individuals representing bicycle safety, pedestrians, disabled communities, law enforcement, environmentalists and others submitted a letter to both the House majority and minority leaders in hopes that they would reconsider the deregulation on autonomous vehicle development that the AV START Act would authorize. They argue that that the current crop of autonomous vehicle (AV) technology is not sufficiently advanced for widespread testing to be safely conducted on public roads, specifically citing many systems' inabilities to identify cyclists correctly.

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A letter urging against the deregulation proposed in the AV START Act was sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

"Allowing the public sale of unproven autonomous vehicle technologies, granting automakers broad and unsafe exemptions from existing federal standards, and ignoring the need for the US DOT to issue minimum safety requirements to address real problems will have disastrous consequences for public safety and public acceptance of driverless cars. We, therefore, urge you to put public safety first and reject the bogus claims of urgency by some automakers," said representatives of public interest groups, in a letter to Congress.

As a counter to the AV START Act's proposed deregulation, the representatives of the public interest groups who were signatories to the letter suggest these changes to the legislation:

• Reduce the number of vehicles allowed exemptions from safety standards.

The current statutes allow companies to apply for a safety exemption for up to 2,500 cars per 12-month period to test new technology. The AV bill would remove this restriction, allowing virtually unlimited exemptions on cars that will be sold to the public.

• Remove Section 7 [of the AV START Act] which allows AV manufacturers to "turn off" vehicle systems at their unfettered discretion, including the steering wheel and brakes.

Manufacturers are currently prohibited from rendering safety systems inoperable without adequate justification and approval from the US DOT. Section 7 would give auto manufacturers sole discretion to ignore existing safety standards without giving US DOT any oversight.

• Establish minimum performance standards.

The AV START Act will allow for the sale of autonomous vehicles which will not have to meet any standards on critical issues including cybersecurity and a proposed "AV-vision test" ensuring that each vehicle can read street signs and markings, as well as identify other vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, etc.

• Ensure adequate consumer information.

"Consumers need to be made aware and understand the limitations and capabilities of the AV they are considering purchasing, as well as any exemptions a vehicle may have been granted from safety standards. Section 12 should be improved to make this an immediate requirement at the point of sale as well as in the vehicle's owner manual. Additionally, the bill should require the establishment of an AV database, similar to SaferCar.gov so that consumers can look up important safety information on their own vehicle, or one they may buy used."

• Provide NHTSA with the resources and tools it needs to effectively do its job.

Increase NHTSA's budget to allow it to better understand and regulate vehicles for safety.

• Include Level 2 AVs in critical safety provisions.

Force SAE Level 2 autonomous vehicles to adhere to all of the same safety regulations as Levels 3, 4 and 5 vehicles.

• Address the needs of members of disability communities.

Add wheelchair access to more vehicle designs to facilitate easier mobility for the disabled.

• Remove provisions that preempt states and localities from protecting their motorists.

Currently, individual states can enact their own regulations regarding autonomous vehicles. The AV START Act would remove that ability, forcing all states to use the same regulations which would vastly simplify design for manufacturers as well as reduce development costs, yet may not be in the best interest of the consumer.

The push for federal deregulation in the autonomous vehicle sector is interesting in that it is hard to think of a time when deregulation has worked in favor of the consumer. While the AV START Act may get "autonomous" vehicles into the hands of average people sooner, will they be better or worse for having had a less complicated development cycle and less oversight?