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Self-driving cars bring new risks — and require new regulations

imagined mock-up of a driver's license for a self-driving car
Illustration:Aïda Amer/Axios

When we turn control over our lives to others, we expect there to be rules that keep us safe. But we're far from having any in place around autonomous vehicles. So it's no surprise that a recent AAA study found 73% of Americans are afraid to ride in a fully self-driving car.

Where it stands: Automakers and tech companies are lobbying for a bill in the Senate, the AV START Act, that would allow millions of self-driving vehicles to come on the market that are exempt from existing federal rules while requiring no new ones to ensure autonomous vehicles are safer than the cars we have today — a system where 37,133 people died on U.S roads last year.

Context: Commercial air travel is carefully regulated and the FAA is funded at $17 billion a year, helping to make airline fatalities extremely rare in the U.S. However, the agency in charge of auto safety, NHTSA, has a budget of less than $1 billion and only voluntary guidelines to make sure self-driving cars are safe before they hit the road.

What’s needed: Consumers deserve strong protections that are missing from the bills before Congress.

  • Minimum performance standards for computer perception, cybersecurity and automation-induced driver distraction for partially automated and fully self-driving cars
  • Strong privacy rules and sharing of safety data with regulators, investigators and researchers
  • Accessibility and safety for all disability communities
  • Public information about vehicles' safety, capabilities and limitations
  • State and local authority to limit the deployment of AVs until these federal rules are in place

The bottom line: Federal law already allows extensive testing on public roads. Instead of rushing forward to undermine current rules, Congress should increase NHTSA’s budget and direct them to put strong regulations in place.

David Friedman is vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports and a former acting administrator of NHTSA.

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