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Consumer group raises pointed questions about self-driving cars

For example, where are the federal regulations covering these vehicles?

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Even though there has been little documented consumer sentiment asking for them, automakers are moving quickly to develop autonomous cars.

Testing has already begun on public roads in California, New York, and Michigan. Now, Consumer Watchdog, a consumer advocacy group, is urging everyone to tap the brakes.

Speaking at the Automated Vehicles Symposium 2017 in San Francisco, Consumer Watchdog Privacy Policy Director John Simpson said there currently are no federal and few state regulations covering self-driving vehicles. He worries how self-driving cars are going to mix with vehicles driven by people.

"No federal or state standards would leave us at the mercy of manufacturers as they rush to use our public highways as their private laboratories however they wish with no safety protections at all," Simpson said.

Praise for California

He praised California's initial autonomous vehicle testing regulations, saying they are working. He notes that 36 companies have permits to test robot cars on public roads and will be required to file crash and disengagement reports, so the public knows what's happening.

The consumer group is calling on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to adopt enforceable federal safety standards covering self-driving cars. If the feds don't do it, the group warned, the states will have to.

But Congress might not let the states act. Simpson said the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection held a hearing recently on a bill to prevent states from adopting autonomous vehicle safety standards.

Last year, the Obama Administration issued an automated vehicle policy that relied on voluntary measures. The Trump Administration is said to be reviewing that policy and may issue guidelines of its own.

Big stake for consumers

Simpson says consumers have a big stake in how this all plays out. The concern is what the cost to both consumers and taxpayers will be in the future, when human drivers will share the road with what are essentially "robot cars."

There are also legal questions to be determined. For example, who will be at fault in a crash between a car driven by a human and one piloted by a robot?

Simpson says Congress should not limit or restrict state consumer protection laws in this area, and should not give manufacturers a pass by allowing arbitration clauses, "hold harmless" provisions or other waivers in their contracts.

Consumer concern over the rush toward automotive automation is not new. A years ago Consumer Reports called on Tesla to disengage its auto pilot feature in the Model S until the carmaker makes it necessary for the driver's hands to remain on the wheel at all times.

At the same time, a coalition of consumer groups called on the government to establish clear rules before turning self-driving cars loose on the nation's highways.

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