Some Consumer Advocates Express Concern over Partnership between Regulators and Carmakers
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Some Consumer Advocates Express Concern over Partnership between Regulators and Carmakers

January 15, 2016

Some consumer advocates are worried that a potential partnership between the auto industry and federal regulators may make cars more unsafe for drivers.

California-based Consumer Watchdog says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is willing to allow carmakers to detour federal laws and regulations to hasten approvals of certain breakthrough safety technology as well as driverless cars.

"With multiple instances of deadly defective cars, a historic number of recalls, the Volkswagen scandal and the report on Tuesday that Google's robot cars had hundreds of near misses, now is not the time for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to abdicate its responsibility to enforce auto safety through binding safety rules," Consumer Watchdog founder Harvey Rosenfield said in a written statement.

Rosenfield is responding to a story from the Detroit News in which NHTSA director Mark Rosenkind hinted at announcing an industry-government partnership that would speed up the process by which safety breakthroughs are put into production. This consortium, the Detroit News reports, would make approvals faster than what would happen through the traditional rule-making process.

The same could be seen for autonomous vehicles. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx is also expected to announce steps to make it easier for tech companies and carmakers to develop driverless cars.

The intent of the consortium would be for car companies to share their safety technology rather than keep it as proprietary information. With companies realizing that safety sells, this would, in theory, make the technology standard rather than a feature that distinguishes one car company from another.

Consumer Watchdog and a few other consumer advocates -- the Center for Auto Safety and former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook -- are petitioning NHTSA to make Automatic Emergency Breaking standard equipment on all vehicles. The petition says that automakers have been lobbying NHTSA for permission to establish voluntary standards instead of mandatory safety regulation. The problem with voluntary safety standards, says the petition, is that they are created behind closed doors, without public involvement and cannot be enforced by outside agencies.

The nonprofit also cites issues with expediting the development of driverless cars by pointing to data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which summarizes the instances in which a human driver had to take control of a robot car. California requires that driverless cars be occupied by a licensed driver capable of taking over the vehicle. During a 15-month period, the driverless technology in Google's famed cars failed and gave control to the driver about 270 times. There was about 70 instances in which the driver felt compelled to intervene.