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Senators Want to Sneak Safety Exemptions for Self-Driving Cars Into Law

A group of senators led by South Dakota Republican John Thune wants to let companies rush self-driving cars to market before any federal safety standards related to autonomous systems have been drafted.

A coalition of 65 consumer advocacy and street safety organizations has warned against the bill known as AV START, which would preempt state and local safety regulations of self-driving cars without spelling out any federal safety rules (although it would allow U.S. DOT to draft some). In addition, the bill would exempt AVs from many safety standards that apply to all other cars. Each manufacturer would get an allotment of 100,000 vehicles to sell for use on public streets within three years.

In a letter sent to Senators yesterday [PDF], the coalition -- which includes the American Public Health Association, America Walks, and the League of American Bicyclists -- demands the addition of public safety standards before the legislation is enacted. But Thune, the Commerce Committee chair who represents one of the most rural, least-populated states in the nation, wants to include the AV START language as a rider to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, which is viewed as a must-pass. The maneuver would prevent debate and an up-or-down vote on AV START as stand-alone legislation.

The rush to pass AV START before safety standards are enacted is proceeding despite the killing of Elaine Herzberg by a self-driving Uber car in Tempe, Arizona, this spring. A National Transportation Safety Board report revealed that Uber had programmed the car not to brake in certain situations, and that the backup driver was watching TV on her phone at the time of the crash.

Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group, says the coalition doesn't oppose self-driving cars but wants to ensure safety protections are in place before laws legalize sales to the public.

"The promise is that these are going to be safer," he said. "There’s no requirement that these be even as safe as what we have right now. That’s really a problem. "

Even Keith Crain (yes, that Keith Crain), the long-time publisher of Automotive News, thinks lawmakers are shirking their duty to protect the public:

Autonomous vehicles may provide the opportunity to save even more lives and prevent more injuries. But they must also adhere to the same strict standards that exist today.

It is bad enough that automakers are testing these vehicles on public roads. To even think about manufacturing these vehicles for the public without meeting today's standards is simply irresponsible.

The coalition has proposed nine changes to the AV START legislation, including a mandate that data recorded in crashes be disclosed, and a requirement that AVs pass a "vision test" showing they can process visual information about their surroundings as well as human drivers must demonstrate to be licensed.

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