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No Driver, Mo’ Problems: Advocates Demand AV Regulations

And federal probes into self-driving vehicles after crashes and fires are not making a great case for the future of autonomous vehicles.

Photo: Mobileye, an Intel Company|

No one is driving this car.

Autonomous vehicles and tech may be the wave of the future, but just like drivers, they pose a serious risk to pedestrians and other road users, advocates said this week at a Senate hearing on traffic safety at which they called for more regulation. 

And federal probes into self-driving vehicles after crashes and fires are not making a great case for the other side.

“AV technology, it's not ready for prime time,” said Cathy Chase, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, whose organization wrote a letter pushing for more time-tested regulations on the auto and tech industries, as well as slowing down the launch of autonomous vehicles to the public before they are safe for all people on the road.

That skepticism is also shared by the public, according to a recent poll from AAA, whose survey found that about 66 percent of respondents are afraid of self-driving vehicles.

When it comes to traffic safety overall, even Congress has recognized the gravity of the situation.

“The safety situation on our roads constitutes a national crisis,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chair of the Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, Maritime, Freight and Ports, said in his remarks at Tuesday’s hearing, “Examining the Roadway Safety Crisis and Highlighting Community Solutions.”

Just under 41,000 people were killed in crashes in 2023, according to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration. That number may have dipped slightly, but cyclists and pedestrian deaths have seen major upticks

Now enter autonomous vehicles. Some in the Senate hearing praised the innovation and advancement of AVs. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently announced an investigation into Waymo after the company submitted an incident report detailing at least 22 crashes with automated vehicles.

This comes after other probes into companies like Amazon’s Zoox, Ford, and Tesla, after crashes involving the vehicle's misleadingly named "autopilot" feature resulted in the a recall. That's led some advocates to argue that "driverless cars" are presenting more challenges than solutions.

Lawmakers like Peters also embraced DOT’s Safe System Approach to make roads safe for all users through holistic change, rather than waiting for an AV silver bullet. This paradigm requires looking at everything — safer vehicles, safer roads, safer speeds, etc. — and recognizing that humans are vulnerable on and off the road.

As the AV revolution seems likely to continue, though, advocates say there are real world, lo-fi strategies to increase their safety, if automakers are willing.

“The auto industry and tech industry don't like regulations,” Chase said. “They like to be given carte blanche to put out whatever products they want. And historically speaking, regulations were the way that we've achieved higher levels of safety.”

Advocates provided some simple autonomous vehicle tenets that they say can help ensure TVs are safe for all road users, including more overall regulation of the tech and auto companies providing these vehicles, continued data collection from NHTSA, and independent review boards to provide oversight for AV testing in public places. 

In the meantime, Chase’s advice is to not take your hands off the wheel, even with all of the new auto-assistance tools available.

“These technologies,” Chase said, "are not ready.”

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