Consumers Union: Uber, Waymo Crashes Raise Safety, Transparency Concerns with Self-Driving Cars

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As Waymo announces upcoming launch of self-driving ride service, Consumer Reports’ advocacy division urges companies to prove their vehicles are safe for testing and commercial use on public roads

WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 9, 2018) — Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports, today called on companies developing automated driving systems, including Uber and Waymo, to take a safe and transparent approach to the testing and commercial use of self-driving vehicles. Crashes involving Uber and Waymo vehicles occurred recently during testing on public roads. Uber’s crash led the company to temporarily suspend its on-road testing of driverless cars. Waymo announced yesterday that it will launch a self-driving ride service in Phoenix, Arizona, later this year.

David Friedman, Director of Cars and Products Policy and Analysis for Consumers Union, said, “Self-driving cars have enormous potential to save lives and make transportation more convenient, but safety must come first. The recent crashes involving Uber and Waymo make it clear that companies need to take a safe, transparent approach to self-driving cars. Before a company puts one of these cars on public roads, it must thoroughly understand and communicate the capabilities and the limitations of the vehicle. Companies should make public detailed documentation of their tests on private proving grounds and their advanced computer simulations. There shouldn’t be tests on public roads, let alone commercial use, until the companies have proven the systems are safe.”

Uber has reportedly determined that the fatal crash involving one of its test vehicles in Arizona this past March—in which a pedestrian became the first known person killed in an autonomous vehicle crash—likely happened because the company’s software identified the pedestrian as a benign object in the road, such as a plastic bag, rather than a human being. According to media reports, the vehicle’s sensors detected the victim, but the software incorrectly deemed her to be a “false positive” and failed to act to prevent the collision.

“If this report is correct, Uber’s software was not ready for public roads,” added Friedman. “It is unconscionable that Uber may have exposed the public to a car that couldn’t tell the difference between a plastic bag and a person. If Uber’s self-driving system lacked the ability to sufficiently understand its surroundings and safely respond to events on the road, then it was far too dangerous to test it off of a closed track.”

Separately, on May 4 a Waymo self-driving test vehicle was involved in a crash on a public road in Chandler, Arizona. Onboard video footage released by the company shows an oncoming car swerve across the median and approach the Waymo vehicle prior to the crash. The Waymo vehicle does not appear to take clear steps to avoid or mitigate the crash. The following day, Waymo stated, “our self-driving minivan was travelling westbound in manual mode … when a silver Honda sedan travelling eastbound on Chandler Blvd swerved across the median strip and struck the Waymo vehicle.”

Friedman said, “While it is not clear whether a traditional, human-driven vehicle would have been able to avoid the recent Waymo crash, this incident raises many questions. Would the car have tried to take evasive action if it were in self-driving mode? Would it have recognized the threat? How long was the human driver in control before the crash? Did the human driver take over upon recognizing the threat? Are Waymo’s drivers sufficiently trained and qualified? Waymo and all self-driving car companies need to be able to quickly and publicly answer these questions and more.

“All companies developing self-driving systems should make safety their top priority. Too many companies are in a race to be first, instead of a race to be the safest. Consumers should be able to benefit from automated driving tomorrow without being put at risk today,” added Friedman.

Consumers Union consistently has advocated for more responsible corporate behavior and more robust protections in the emerging automated vehicle space. Through its marketplace and public policy work, Consumers Union will continue to push companies to ensure their vehicles are safe, regardless of whether a human or automated system is doing the driving.

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Contact: David Butler, dbutler@consumer.org, 202-462-6262, ext. 7416

Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Consumers Union works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.