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Drawbacks of NHTSA's AV TEST Initiative

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Sept. 29, 2020—The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently launched its Automated Vehicle Transparency and Engagement for Safe Testing (more on AV TEST here) initiative. The goal of the initiative, according to those at NHTSA, is to improve safety and testing transparency of automated driving systems, but some claim that the initiative does the opposite. 

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an organization dedicated to making America’s roads safer, said in a press release in June, “...with the announcement of the AV TEST initiative, the Agency is continuing a dangerous hands-off approach to hands-free driving that has thus far failed to adequately respond to foreseeable safety risks associated with autonomous technology in cars.”

The latest update from NHTSA, regarding AV TEST, included a demonstration of a publicly-accessible, online tracking tool that supposedly shows where the autonomous test sites are located, which vehicles are active, where they plan to go, and more. 

But, Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, says the initiative is greatly lacking and could lull Americans into a false sense of security.

One of the main oversights of the project is that the collected information is voluntary. This means that companies can decide not only if they want to submit information, but what information they are submitting, says Chase.

She uses the analogy of going to the doctor’s office to explain the gravity of the situation.

“Say you’re sick and you go to the doctor and the doc says to you, ‘I only have a quarter of your chart, but do you still want your diagnosis?’” Chase, along with most of the population, would opt to wait until the full picture can come into view.

She says without all of the information, the public is ill-informed and there’s a risk of inaccurate information. 

“If you don’t have the full picture and then decisions are made, I think that’s risky,” she says.  

U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Elaine L Chao, said during the testing tool launch just a few weeks ago, “This new platform will make on-road testing information accessible to government, industry, and the public alike in an attempt to improve safety and help everyone understand how AVs are being tested in their communities.”

Chase, however, begs to differ. 

“I went on the website today,” Chase said on the day she spoke with ADAPT, “and I know there’s testing in the D.C. areas, but the only thing that’s on here is an old test in the Arlington area.”

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety fears that without mandatory data collection as well as mandatory data reporting, the initiative is glaringly insufficient to inform the public, which Chase says, was its original intent. 

Other requests made by Chase’s organization include the need for minimum performance standards across all autonomous vehicles and ample space for public comment during the planning process. 

“An open discussion featuring a wide range of opinions on how to safely test driverless cars and share information with the public is needed,” stated the press release. 

Chase says the goal of her organization is never to halt progress or stand in the way of innovation, but to ensure that lawmakers are going about it in a safe and transparent way. 

“We want to know what’s going on on the roads by way of more data. Data is what should drive decision-making,” she says.

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