Pedestrian pushing bicycle is first person killed by fully automated self-driving car; "Technology companies should freeze their race to field autonomous vehicles" says expert; MoBikeFed joins nationwide call for greater safety, accountability

An Arizona woman who was crossing the street pushing her bicycle became the first person to be killed by an autonomous vehicle operating in self-driving mode.

Current self-driving vehicle technology falls short
Current self-driving vehicle technology falls short when it comes to detecting people who walk and bicycle--as Sunday's complete unnecessary tragedy showed all too clearly

In recent weeks, with legislation pending in Congress and the US Department of Transportation set to release new driverless car regulations, the Missouri Bicycle & Pedestrian Federation has been working with a national coalition of roadway safety groups to push for greater oversight of driverless vehicles, which have a well known blind spot when it comes to tracking and operating safely around people who walk and bicycle.

We feared that allowing autonomous vehicles to operate on our roads and highways, when they have a known issue dealing with people who walk and bicycle--who are frequent users of our public roads--would inevitably lead to tragedy.

Sunday's pedestrian fatality showed that day came all too soon.

"This is the nightmare all of us working in this domain always worried about"

In the aftermath of Sunday's autonomous vehicle fatality, Raj Rajkumar, head of Carnegie Mellon University's leading self-driving laboratory, issued a statement that echoes many of our concerns with the current state of driverless vehicle technology:

"This is the nightmare all of us working in this domain always worried about."

Carmakers and technology companies should freeze their race to field autonomous vehicles because "clearly the technology is not where it needs to be" . . .

"This isn't like a bug with your phone. People can get killed. Companies need to take a deep breath. The technology is not there yet." . . .

Rajkumar said that ordinary people in addition to automakers and tech companies have developed far too much trust in self-driving technology simply because the cars have driven hundreds of thousands of miles with only one fatality before this . . .

Too many driverless vehicle designers have seen the essential problem as "car vs car"--with people who walk and bicycle an afterthought at best

The new driverless vehicle technology has tremendous promise to improve roadway safety for all road users.

But it is very important to realise that right now, this is only a promise for the future.

Right now, reality is that the existing state-of-the-art technology does not adequately recognize or deal with people who walk and bicycle on our roads.

Like many of our road and highway designers, too many of the driverless vehicle designers have seen the essential problem as "car vs car"--with people who walk and bicycle an afterthought at best.

This must change.

Tech companies are running a massive beta test - on our streets, with our lives

Tech companies commonly follow the "release early and often" methodology--essentially treating customer as an experimental or beta test group. This is a great way to roll out new mobile phone apps, where the risks and stakes are low.

It is, however, a completely unacceptable way to operate in the real world, where real human lives are at risk.

Until driverless vehicle technology shows clearly that it can handle pedestrians and bicyclists with, minimally, a greater degree of safety than human drivers do, the technology should not be allowed to operate on our roads and streets.

People who bicycle and walk should not be made guinea pigs in an experiment

It is important to understand that, as the Missouri Bicycle & Pedestrian Federation, we do not fundamentally oppose autonomous vehicle technology. When it is proven safe and effective, including for the hundreds of millions of Americans who walk and bicycle regularly on our public roads and streets, it should be implemented.

But in the meanwhile, Americans who walk and bicycle should not be made guinea pigs in a massive experiment on human subjects by big tech companies.

What safe and effective autonomous vehicle systems look like

Just ten days ago we submitted comments to the US Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Institute asking that safety and access for the hundreds of millions of nonmotorized transportation users in the U.S. be prioritized in forthcoming regulations about the forthcoming roll-out of autonomous driving systems (ADS).

It is very unfortunate, just ten days later, to see how prescient these comments were and how important it is to build these principles into any future ADS vehicles before are allowed on our public roads:

  • ADS systems that do not properly and consistently recognize bicyclists and pedestrians should not be allowed to operate on public roadways. All liability for injuries, deaths, and property damage under such systems must be the responsibility of the ADS creator or operator.
  • We are concerned that ADS implementation could result in additional restrictions on the mobility of non-motorized users. Autonomous vehicles must be implemented in a way that improves road safety and mobility for all users, including nonmotorized users. Systems that do not meet these requirements should not be allowed on our public streets.
  • ADS technology has the potential to greatly improve safety in our transportation system as a whole, and for people who walk and bicycle particularly. However, the exact laws, regulations, and manner of rolling out these new rules and regulations will have a decisive impact on whether that potential for improved access and safety for nonmotorized is completely realized or squandered.

We strongly encourage the greatest attention to access and safety for those of us who access the national transportation system using nonmotorized means.


MoBikeFed signs on to national letter asking for improved safety and oversight for autonomous vehicles

Today, the Missouri Bicycle & Pedestrian Federation joined a large, diverse, nationwide coalition who signed the letter below asking the Senate to delay the AV Start Act, which would implement very weak national guidelines for the rollout of autonomous vehicles across the U.S., and to include much-needed safety measures for autonomous vehicles when the Act is taken up.

It is very clear that our current guidelines for autonomous vehicles are inadequate.

Organizations and groups that would like to join the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety Coalition that is working on this issue can join the Coalition mailing list here.


March 19, 2018

The Honorable John Thune, Chairman

The Honorable Bill Nelson, Ranking Member

Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation        

United States Senate                                                 
Washington, DC 20510                                                        

Dear Chairman Thune and Ranking Member Nelson:

We are writing to convey our support and gratitude for your leadership in convening tomorrow’s hearing, “Update on NHTSA and Automaker Efforts to Repair Defective Takata Air Bag Inflators.”  The growing death toll on our Nation’s highways and the record number of vehicle recalls due to serious safety defects combined with lackluster agency oversight and insufficient industry responses deserve the attention and focus this hearing will provide.  As you continue to examine safety problems and remedial actions related to defective Takata airbags, we urge you to also recognize  that consumers will likely be victims once again of industry misconduct and government missteps with the mass deployment of experimental autonomous vehicles (AVs) unless Congress acts.  The unfortunate news that a pedestrian was killed late Sunday in a crash with an Uber being driven in autonomous mode should serve as a startling reminder that there are real world consequences to prematurely deploying AV technology.  We urge you to take heed of this fatal incident during tomorrow’s hearing and request that you delay  consideration of the AV START Act (S. 1885) until the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has completed its investigations of this recent Uber crash in Tempe, AZ that killed a pedestrian as well as the California crash involving a Tesla and a parked fire truck this past January.  The NTSB may have findings and recommendations that should be incorporated into the legislation in addition to our proposals for legislative improvements.  We respectfully ask that this letter be submitted into the hearing record.

In 2016, approximately 925 recalls involving more than 53 million vehicles were issued – the largest number in history.  This includes deadly defects such as exploding Takata airbags, which have killed at least 20 people worldwide, faulty General Motor (GM) ignition switches that have claimed the lives of over 120 more and many others.  Unfortunately, these are not the only high profile examples of serious problems and cover-ups.  Yet, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) still lacks crucial authorities and resources to serve as an effective “cop on the beat.”  Furthermore, NHTSA’s budget is woefully underfunded and the agency is in desperate need of both a more robust budget and staff.  The agency should be provided with imminent hazard authority to immediately intervene against widespread safety defects.  The agency should also be given enhanced penalty authority including removing the cap on civil penalties and adding criminal penalties to ensure manufacturers do not willfully put defective cars into the marketplace.  Additionally, there is no requirement that used cars under open recall for a defect be remedied before being sold.  With 38.5 million used cars sold in 2016, this is a huge and terrifying loophole that should be closed similar to congressional action related to rental cars.

We should not allow history to repeat itself especially one replete with industry malfeasance affecting millions of consumers and needlessly causing deaths and injuries.  Now the same industry is asking the public and the government to “trust them” as they develop and deploy new driverless car technology.  Alarmingly, the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) has been complicit in this approach.  By issuing only “voluntary guidelines,” which are grossly inadequate and lack any sort of enforcement mechanism, the U.S. DOT has shirked its safety mission and regulatory duty.  The stage is now set for what will essentially be beta-testing on public roads with families as unwitting crash test dummies.

It is for these reasons that it is critically important that improvements be made to the AV START Act.  While some changes were made during the Committee markup, the bill still lacks essential safeguards that will assure sufficient government oversight, industry accountability and public safety.  This legislation will set AV policy for decades to come.  As such, it is imperative that strong protections for consumers and the public be included.  We strongly urge the Committee to make the following modifications to the bill.

The size and scope of exemptions from federal safety standards must be narrowed.  The AV START Act would allow for potentially millions of unproven AVs to be exempt from current federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS) and sold to the public.  The number of AVs that will be permitted to be exempt from FMVSS should be reduced and the time period between exemption “tiers” should be extended from 12 to 24 months to allow for adequate time to assess the real-world impact on the road safety performance of exempt vehicles.  Further, any exemption from FMVSS that would diminish the current level of occupant protection should be prohibited.  Moreover, the AV START Act would allow manufacturers to circumvent the exemption process and “turn off” vehicle systems such as the steering wheel and brakes without review and approval by NHTSA.  This provision gives unfettered discretion to the industry to unilaterally make safety systems inoperable and should be eliminated.

Minimum performance requirements must be set to address critical issues with AVs.  Significant safety vulnerabilities need to be addressed through basic safety rules, and the AV START Act should direct NHTSA to issue the following standards. 

Cybersecurity:  Given the recent record of high-profile cyberattacks, protections must be put in place to curb potentially catastrophic hacks of AVs.  A plan, as currently required by the bill, is insufficient and should be replaced with a directed rulemaking to be completed within three years. 

Electronics:  Motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment are powered and run by highly complex electronic systems and will become even more so with the introduction of autonomous driving systems.  As the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has carried out for aircraft, NHTSA must require minimum electronics standards for all cars.  This will be essential to ensure that the electronics that power and operate safety and autonomous driving systems function properly. 

Driver Distraction and Engagement:  In Level 2 and Level 3 vehicles that require a human to take control back from the AV system, the driver must be kept engaged.  This need was underscored by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the fatal 2016 crash of a Tesla Model S, which found that the Autopilot system facilitated the driver’s inattention and overreliance on the system.  NHTSA must be directed to establish a minimum performance standard to address this problem. 

Vision Test:  AVs will need to be able to properly detect and respond to other vehicles, roadway infrastructure, pedestrians, bicyclists, law enforcement, and other common encounters during any given trip.  NHTSA should require that AVs pass a “vision test” to guarantee that it can sufficiently “see” and react to its surroundings.

Consumers need basic safety information about AVs.  As driverless cars are sold to the public, it is necessary that consumers know what they can, and cannot, do.  Further, consumers must know from which vehicle safety standards their vehicle may be exempt.  While the bill includes a rulemaking for consumer information at the point of sale and in the owner’s manual, the final rule may not be issued for years.  Consumers should immediately have access to basic safety information.  Additionally, Level 2 vehicles must be included in the consumer information and safety evaluation report (SER) provisions, and the SERs should require documentation of manufacturers’ assertions, not just descriptions, to ensure that NHTSA has enough information to accurately assess the technology.  NHTSA should also be directed to establish a website that the public can use to find out safety information about AVs.  And, all crashes involving an AV should be reported to NHTSA and that data should be made publicly available.

The varying needs of disabilities communities must be addressed.  Though AVs are often touted as a panacea for mobility issues facing disability communities, they are certainly not a one-size fits all solution.  Specifically, there is nothing in the AV START Act that would remove barriers to wheelchair users such as cost or vehicle design.  The way that most vehicles are currently designed do not allow for the integration of a ramp or lift system or for a wheelchair to be properly or safely stored.  Simply removing a driver or installing an automated system will not overcome these factors that inhibit mobility.  Moreover, in the event of a crash or malfunction, people with certain disabilities may be particularly vulnerable.

States should not be preempted from acting to protect their citizens.  The bill would preclude states from undertaking regulatory action even though the federal government has not yet done so.  This is an unprecedented approach to preemption that should be rejected.  Until U.S. DOT issues standards and regulations, states must retain their traditional legal authority to maintain public safety.

Compared to the complex systems that will be used in driverless cars, an airbag inflator is a relatively simple technology.  As the Committee focuses on the deadly consequences of the failure of just one vehicle component, we urge you to make significant changes to the AV START Act to protect public safety.  This Committee has already held five hearings on vehicle defects in the past four years that have revealed critical information about numerous NHTSA mistakes, repeated industry wrongdoing and the unacceptable but frequent breach of public trust.  We urge you to act to ensure that future tragedies like exploding Takata airbags are not repeated with the development and deployment of technology that is still in its infancy.  Unfortunately the mistakes of recent history are all too fresh and should not be pushed aside in an inappropriate rush to limit NHTSA’s authority to oversee the safety of autonomous vehicles.  



Cc: Members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation

Improving safety for all road users is one of the four primary goals of MoBikeFed's Vision for Bicycling and Walking in Missouri. Ensuring that self-driving automobile systems are safe for all road users, including those who walk and bicycle, is one of the ways we work towards that goal.

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