Will Industry Pressure Loosen Self-Driving Car Tests?

But Lyft, which also submitted comments to NHTSA, argues that the presence of such controls “impede the development and deployment” of …

Usually, it is Elon Musk pushing self-driving car technology too far, too fast. But, this time, it is WayMo, a division of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

Waymo—in a public comment letter to the NHTSA, reported by David Shepardson at Reuters—recently “urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to ‘promptly’ remove regulatory barriers for cars without steering wheels and brake pedals.”

Yet Waymo’s current vehicles fail to even give a smooth ride, let alone handle obscure situations (the more commonly raised concern):

The Information analyzed internal feedback about the performance of Alphabet’s Waymo self-driving taxis on public streets, covering more than 10,500 rides in July and part of August. The reports from riders using the service in suburban Phoenix and in the San Francisco Bay Area, portions of which we describe below, provide an unprecedented view into the most high-profile autonomous vehicle development effort in the world, underscoring the extreme difficulty of making automated taxis mainstream.

Amir Efrati, “Waymo Riders Describe Experiences on the Road” at The Information (August 26, 2019 )

If only this were just more Silicon Valley silliness. But no, according to Reuters, even the often-staid GM commented that:

“it is imperative that NHTSA continue to drive this critical dialogue with a sense of urgency so that the necessary regulatory evolution keeps pace with advancing technology.”

Waymo is cagey as to why removing the steering wheel and other human-operated controls is urgent. But Lyft, which also submitted comments to NHTSA, argues that the presence of such controls “impede the development and deployment” of autonomous vehicles. How their presence impedes these goals, the firm does not clarify.

To be fair, the NHTSA rules naturally assume a human driver and, not surprisingly, include one in tests of control devices. Waymo and Lyft, among others, are correct in assessing that such tests may not apply to Level 4 or Level 5 vehicles, where human drivers are optional.

The bottom line is, NHTSA needs to amend its tests to accommodate self-driving vehicles. But then NHTSA must define tests that match or exceed those a human-driven vehicle passes.

Here is an example of the issues that arise: NHTSA often orders test vehicles of the exact model intended for sale to the general public. Because many of the vehicles Waymo, Lyft, and others propose will not be sold to the public, the industry offers several suggestions for new test procedures. Waymo encourages an after-the-fact test (that is, testing the vehicles after they are sold and delivered but before they are put into operation) while Lyft wants the NHTSA to trust simulations and (of all things) the technical documentation itself: “As such, Lyft supports FMVSS compliance verification that primarily relies on technical documentation for system design verification.”

I agree that NHTSA needs to adapt its test processes to self-driving vehicles. But trusting technical documentation or only testing vehicles that are already sold is grossly insufficient. Technical documentation tells us what the engineers think should happen, not what will happen. And testing sold vehicles creates an incentive to skimp on tests.

Skimp on tests? Consider: When NHTSA is testing a vehicle no consumer has actually bought, no one but the developer (and the investors) have a financial stake. NHTSA has little to lose by simply doing its job of reporting flaws and malfunctions. But when many unsuspecting buyers are caught up in a problem, it becomes, by comparison, politically messy. Just ignoring a possible problem becomes a more attractive approach for an agency.

Fortunately, more sensible voices—notably, those outside of the Silicon Valley bubble—are offering constructive criticism in their comments:

As a standalone approach, the Technical Documentation approach introduces too much risk since there is no validation a vehicle works as designed or equipment is not faulty. Additionally, the Surrogate Vehicle approach introduces too much risk because the vehicle being tested is not completely representative of the vehicle manufactured for consumer use.

– Comments from Pennsylvania Department of Transportation

As NHTSA noted in the advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM), there are no barriers in existing federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSSs) which address ‘the self-driving capability of an ADS’ or ‘prohibit inclusion of ADS components on a vehicle,’ and current FMVSSs do not pose ‘testing or certification challenges for vehicles with ADSs so long as the vehicles have means of manual control and conventional seating, and otherwise meet the performance requirements of the FMVSSs.’”

– Comments from Consumer Reports

Further, we continue to find specious the assertion that current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) obstruct the future development and testing of ADS- DV technology… Until manufacturers have validated ADS-DV performance in all reasonable operating design domains and demonstrated continued safe operation of ADS- DVs lacking human control, the rationale for rewriting the rules to allow such vehicles on the road remains unexplained.

– Commentsfrom the Center for Auto Safety

The message from Waymo and other self-driving car proponents is that self-driving cars are coming soon and that they will make us safer. But we have little evidence for either claim. We have, on the other hand, plenty of evidence that companies may aggressively pursue their own ends while risking human life.

NHTSA must not be cowed by science fiction flash-bang promises of self-driving cars. They should—must—design rigorous tests that ensure self-driving cars are at least as safe as human drivers. To fail is to abdicate their responsibility to the very companies they are meant to monitor as well as to the public.


Also by Brendan Dixon on safety issues around self-driving cars:

Are self-driving cars really safer? A former Uber executive says no. Before we throw away the Driver’s Handbook… Current claims that self-driving cars are safer are hype, not measurement. Meanwhile, Congress is expected to push for legislation next month to pave the way for widespread use of self-driving vehicles without a consensus on safety standards.

Does a Western bias affect self-driving cars? How a driver is expected to act varies by culture. Self-driving cars (autonomous vehicles) will need to adapt to different rules and we will, very likely, need to change those rules to make the vehicles work.

Should Tesla’s Autopilot feature be illegal? A recent study from the United Kingdom on driver competence suggests that maybe it should.

and

Autopilot is not just another word for “asleep at the wheel” As a recent fatal accident in Florida shows, even sober, attentive drivers often put too much trust into Tesla’s Autopilot system, with disastrous results.

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A BMW painted with Vantablack

Vantablack — the darkest, most light-absorbing pigment on the market — is freaky stuff to behold (previously, previously, previously, previously, and …

Black cars are notably more dangerous to drive than white cars for reasons of visibility already. A study by Monash University Accident Research Centre in Australia, which studied crash data across the country from 1987 to 2004, found that compared to white cars as a baseline, crash risk was higher for just about every other common color, including red, blue, silver, green, gray, and, yes, black. Black performed the worst by every measure: In daylight, the chance of crash is 12% higher than that of white cars. At dawn and dusk, that jumps to 47%—though your relative risk of getting into an accident at that time is lower at those hours, the authors point out. Monash’s study was consistent with at least one other, from the University of Granada, which determined that yellow was a safe alternative to white. The center is a respected resource in vehicle safety, also contributing to the annual Used Car Safety Ratings.

In any case, if black is the least safe color for a car, making that black even blacker seems like an objectively terrible design decision. In fact, BMW confirmed outright that this car will not be going into production. As to whether or not the company considers it safe? “The car hasn’t been made for road test drives and hasn’t seen daylight yet, but we will certainly test it on our proving grounds to see how it reacts/looks outside of a hangar,” a spokesperson said. “Therefore, we can’t answer this question yet.”

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UK drivers cover an estimated 216m miles a year without an MOT

A study of more than 2,000 drivers by company car insurance firm Direct Line for Business found that almost a fifth had “accidentally” driven their car …

British motorists drive an estimated 216 million miles a year in vehicles that do not have a valid MOT, according to new research.

More on the MOT test:

A study of more than 2,000 drivers by company car insurance firm Direct Line for Business found that almost a fifth had “accidentally” driven their car for at least a week after the MOT certificate had expired in the past five years. Even more worryingly, eight percent confessed to having driven without a valid MOT certificate for more than six months.

Rusted car a definite MOT fail in the UK

Of those who accidentally drove without a valid MOT for a week, almost half (45 percent) said they only drove once, but eight percent admitted to driving five or more times. Assuming the average motorist drives 21.6 miles every day, Direct Line says this means Brits could have covered as many as 216 million miles each year without a valid MOT certificate.

MOT certificates are a legal requirement for all cars used on the public road, unless they are electric goods vehicles registered before March 1, 2015, tractors or some classic cars first registered more than 40 years ago. Driving a vehicle that needs an MOT but does not have one is punishable by a fine of up to £1,000.

Mechanic inspecting car with torch

The MOT test involves checking over key vehicle components and ensuring the car is safe to be used on the road. Any faults will fall into one of four categories, ranging from ‘dangerous’ to ‘advisory’, via ‘major’ and ‘minor’. Vehicles with dangerous or major faults will fail, while minor and advisory faults will be noted down and should be monitored and fixed if necessary.

According to Direct Line for Business’ study, men are more likely than women to have driven without a valid MOT, with 20 percent of men claiming to have forgotten the test compared with 15 percent of women. Meanwhile those aged 18-34 are much more likely to forget than 35-54-year olds or 55-year olds, of whom just nine percent admitted to having driven without an MOT.

Halfords Autocentre MOT Service and Tyres centre in Basingstoke UK

Regionally, a third (32 percent) of Londoners admitted to driving without a valid MOT for a week, while 25 percent of drivers in the North East confessed to the same offence. Rounding out the top four were the North West (20 percent) and Yorkshire (19 percent).

Matt Boatwright, head of Direct Line for Business, said: “Keeping a vehicle roadworthy is a legal requirement and essential from a safety perspective for both the person driving and others on the road. We understand that having to turn down work because your van is in the garage can be frustrating, however not having a valid MOT could result in a hefty fine and in some cases lead to you losing your licence.”

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How Many Uber and Lyft Drivers Are in Recalled Cars?

That’s why the consumer advocacy group the Center for Auto Safety Tuesday sent letters to Uber, Lyft, Via, and Juno, urging them to take steps to keep …

The average car includes some 30,000 parts, and that leaves a lot of room for things to go wrong. Seatbacks that fold unexpectedly in 20 BMWs. Overpromising fuel gauges on 21,915 Alfa Romeos. Possible loss of steering in 595 Toyota minivans. And that’s just from this week’s batch of recalls issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Alex Davies covers autonomous vehicles and other transportation machines for WIRED.

Recalls are a pretty straightforward business: When NHTSA or an automaker discovers a problem with a particular model, the automaker sends a letter to every registered owner informing them of the issue and telling them how they can get it fixed, for free. (Automakers often voluntarily initiate the process.) The procedure, though, isn’t especially effective, partly because it’s hard to deliver recall notices once a car has changed hands. For recalls issued between 2012 and 2016, just 58.4 percent of vehicles were fixed, according to a 2018 NHTSA report. Given recent massive recalls of GM cars with faulty ignition switches and many more with Takata airbags, that adds up to some 70 million unrepaired cars in the US, according to the Consumer Federation of America. (If you’re now wondering about your car, you can punch the vehicle identification number into NHTSA’s website to check.)

You could shrug this off with a spiel about personal responsibility, but safety advocates say that’s not acceptable for cars being used by ride-hail drivers, whose passengers have no way of knowing they’re climbing into a potentially unsafe vehicle. That’s why the consumer advocacy group the Center for Auto Safety Tuesday sent letters to Uber, Lyft, Via, and Juno, urging them to take steps to keep cars with unaddressed recalls off their platforms. “At a minimum, Uber should give its customers the choice of whether to ride in a recalled vehicle at the time a driver is assigned,” the group’s executive director, Jason Levine, wrote in the letter to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

The Center for Auto Safety’s campaign is drafting off a May investigation by Consumer Reports, which found that of 94,000 Uber and Lyft vehicles in New York City and Seattle, one in six had open recalls. As CR notes, many of those problems are relatively innocuous, like brake lights that randomly illuminate. But at least as many pose a real risk.

“We find that to be ridiculous,” Levine said in an interview. In the wake of the Takata airbag scandal, which killed at least 24 people globally and caused 41.6 million vehicles in the US to be recalled, companies like CarFax created tools for fleet operators, making it possible to run batches of VINs through NHTSA’s recall repository. “This is not all that complicated. They have all the data,” Levine says. “They’re trying to have plausible deniability.”

An Uber spokesperson says the company offers resources to its “driver-partners” to detect and handle recalls, and proactively removes access to the app for drivers in vehicles with “Do Not Drive” recalls, a classification for especially urgent safety problems. Lyft also boots “Do Not Drive” cars, and says drivers have a “strong personal incentive” to keep their cars safe.

But on both services, it’s the driver’s responsibility to address recalls. (Via and Gett, which acquired Juno in 2017, did not reply to requests for comment.) That fits the pattern of how Lyft and Uber work with those drivers. They work to keep liability at arm’s length by insisting that they merely provide the technological platforms that connect drivers to passengers. And while they (loosely) restrict what kind of car a driver can use on those platforms, they take no ownership or responsibility for the vehicle.

For Levine, the fact that Uber addresses cars with “Do Not Drive” notices indicates that the company could do the same for all recalls. It and Lyft could point to a more proactive, safety-minded approach as a selling point, he says, though notes it took a series of sexual assault cases (amid other terrible PR) for Uber to drop forced arbitration clauses from its contracts. Levine hopes it takes less effort, and injury, to resolve this issue. “They have the ability to fix this,” he says.


More Great WIRED Stories

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NHTSA Sends Elon Musk a Cease & Desist Letter over Tesla Safety Claims

Tesla CEO Elon Musk received a cease-and-desist letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) over his claims that the …

Tesla CEO Elon Musk received a cease-and-desist letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) over his claims that the Tesla Model 3 is the safest car in the world.

Business Insider reports that in October 2018, the NHTSA sent a cease-and-desist letter to Tesla CEO Elon Musk over his claims that the Tesla Model 3 sedan is the safest car in the world. Transparency group PlainSite published the cease-and-desist letter this week along with other correspondence between Tesla and the NHTSA obtained via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

According to the letter dated October 17, 2018, Tesla made “a number of misleading statements” about the safety of its Model 3 sedan. CEO Elon Musk also promoted these claims via social media. This claim was linked to the 5-star rating that the NHTSA gave the Model 3 in Septembers, but according to the agency, the high rating does not equate to a car being “safer” than other cars with a 5-star label. The complaint highlights a Tesla blog post from October 7 in which the firm states that the Model 3 “achieves the lowest probability of injury of any vehicle ever tested by NHTSA.”

The NHTSA told Musk that this blog post along with his various other claims “misled customers.” At the time of the posting of the blog post, Musk shared a link to the post on his personal Twitter account and quoted Tesla saying: “There is no safer car in the world than a Tesla” and added himself: “The physics of how Tesla achieved best safety of any cars ever tested.”

The NHTSA issued a veiled response to Tesla which did not name the firm but stated that there was “no ‘safest’ vehicle among those vehicles achieving 5-star ratings.” In the published cache of correspondence between the NHTSA and Tesla, Tesla lawyer Al Prescott stated that “Tesla has provided consumers with fair and objective information.”

A lawyer for the NHTSA, Jonathan Morrison, stated that: “This is not the first time that Tesla has disregarded the guidelines in a manner that may lead to consumer confusion and give Tesla an unfair market advantage.” When questioned by Business Insider, Tesla referred to a letter from October 31st to the NHTSA in which the company states:

Tesla’s blog statements are entirely based on actual test results and NHTSA’s own calculations for determining relative risk of injury and probability of injury. Based on this published data, the Model 3 Long Range RWD has achieved a Vehicle Safety Score of 0.38 that translates to an overall probability of injury of 5.7%. NHTSA has rated almost 1,000 vehicles since the current NCAP began with the 2011 model year. We have compared these results to every other public test report. No vehicle has ever achieve an overall lower score.

Based on the foregoing, we do not see a reason to discontinue use of our safety blog or these statements as long as no other vehicle surpasses the Model 3 Long Range RWD’s Vehicle Safety Score and overall probability of injury. While we do not expect NHTSA to take sides among manufacturers, we had hoped NHTSA would welcome such an achievement because it was presented in an objective manner using the agency’s own data. Model 3’s achievement is exactly what NHTSA intended with the NCAP — to encourage manufactures to continuously improve safety.

Read the full report at Business Insider here.

Lucas Nolan is a reporter for Breitbart News covering issues of free speech and online censorship. Follow him on Twitter @LucasNolanor email him at lnolan@breitbart.com

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