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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The U.S. has taken a hands-off approach to regulating self-driving cars, hoping to help the market thrive — but that approach could ultimately backfire, if it helps sow doubt about the technology's safety.

Driving the news: The U.S. auto safety agency is investigating 28 crashes of Tesla vehicles. And with no clear rules or accountability, these incidents risk undermining public confidence in a technology that's supposed to help the U.S. keep its global competitive edge.

The big picture: "The truth is technology has been developing maybe faster than policy in this regard," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Axios.

  • "We've got a lot of very detailed authorities for regulating where a mirror ought to go. They don't even contemplate a scenario where we're talking about sensors doing the work that mirrors or human beings used to."

Between the lines: Perceptions of self-driving technology are also moving faster than the technology itself, and simple hype may be contributing to the vehicles' growing record of high-profile crashes.

  • "One of the biggest things for us is just making sure that consumers understand what these technologies are for and what they're not for, at least not yet," Buttigieg said. "That's where language really matters."

Reality check: There are no truly self-driving cars available for purchase today, only cars with driver-assist technologies. And some critics say Tesla — which has an outsized influence in this market — is overselling its features in a way that might give consumers the wrong idea and lead to crashes.

  • "Autopilot" is a misnomer: the technology is a form of enhanced cruise control. Drivers still need to keep a hand on the wheel and pay attention at all times. But they often don't.
  • And Tesla's newly introduced "Full Self-Driving" technology vastly overstates its capabilities.
  • The National Transportation Safety Board last year slammed Tesla and the federal government for failing to prevent "foreseeable abuse" of Autopilot technology.

What they're saying: Democratic Senators Ed Markey (Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) demanded "corrective action" from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in a letter last week.

  • "We fear safety concerns involving these vehicles are becoming a pattern, which is incredibly worrisome and deserves your undivided attention," they wrote in a letter to NHTSA Acting Administrator Steven Cliff.

What's next: Despite these high-profile incidents, the march toward self-driving vehicles is still moving quickly. Another pair of senators — Democrat Gary Peters and Republican John Thune — are hoping to speed the commercial use of automated vehicles, Reuters reported.

  • The pair is working to attach AV legislation to a bill to be taken up this week by the Senate Commerce Committee that would provide $100 billion for R&D to maintain U.S. competitiveness with China.
  • The change would allow NHTSA over three years to permit up to 80,000 self-driving cars per automaker, up from 2,500 today.

Go deeper

Jul 30, 2021 - Health

Over half of car crash fatalities in 2020 involved unbelted occupants

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans drove less but engaged in far riskier behavior on the road, government data shows.

Driving the news: More than half of all crash fatalities last year involved unbelted drivers or occupants, the highest level since 2012, The Wall Street Journal notes.

Complaint to FTC: Amazon search results full of potentially deceiving ads

Photo: Nigel Kirby/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Amazon does not sufficiently distinguish between its search results and paid ads, potentially "deceiving millions of consumers," according to a complaint filed to the Federal Trade Commission.

Why it matters: Joan Moriarty, research director for the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labor unions that filed the complaint, told the Washington Post the group is "very hopeful" that the FTC will investigate the complaint because Lina Khan (D), a known Amazon critic, is now chair.

3 hours ago - Health

Pfizer-BioNTech: Booster doses more effective at blocking Omicron

Prepared doses of the BioNtech-Pfizer Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine in Germany on Dec. 7. Photo: Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images

Pfizer and BioNTech said Wednesday that two doses of their COVID-19 vaccine were significantly less effective at neutralizing the Omicron variant in early lab tests, but a three-dose regimen was more effective.

Why it matters: Omicron, which has been labeled a variant of concern by the World Health Organization after being identified by scientists in South Africa last month, has forced vaccine makers to reassess the effectiveness of their vaccines against this specific new form of coronavirus.

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