Nader: Technology not ready for fully autonomous cars

Evan Carter
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Car safety advocate Ralph Nader has serious reservations about fully self-driving cars, and says they’re far from being ready to hit the highways.

“I don’t see a fully autonomous vehicle replacing the driver fleet any time in the next generation,” Nader told The Detroit News on Friday. “We’ll see some good semi-autonomous.”

While he said he does see the benefits of semi-autonomous features such as automatic braking that can assist drivers, he cautions against fully autonomous vehicle modes that would allow drivers to turn their cars into what he calls an “entertainment and office work center.” He believes the direction of self-driving technology is the “next debate in the country.”

Nader, speaking during a book signing at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, said he’s leery of autonomous vehicles because of their susceptibility to hacking.

“Pushing the driver out of any kind of control of the vehicle with software that is fallible — how many times has your computer failed? — and that is extremely vulnerable to hacking for which there’s no known solutions, is going impede any kind of substantial, quantifiable vehicle fleet that’s driverless,” he said.

In 2015, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV recalled 1.4 million vehicles that could be cyber-hacked remotely. FCA last week launched a program to offer up to $1,500 bounties to hackers who find security weaknesses in Fiat Chrysler vehicles.

Nader, 82, also said people don’t want to lose control of their cars to computers.

“There are far too many complex variables that are way beyond the range of Silicon Valley’s algorithms,” he said. “On the highway, the human factor, things that algorithms cannot detect, that human judgment can detect.”

Nader first gained attention with the 1965 publication of “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which exposed Chevrolet Corvair handling dangers. He was in the Detroit area on Thursday to be inducted in the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Nader believes there is too little oversight — both from the government and from independent scientists and engineers — of the private companies that are currently testing self-driving features.

“The data is proprietary, it’s secret. So it cannot be reviewed and critiqued by other scientists and engineers,” he said. “On top of that, the government isn’t proposing any mandatory standards, just guidelines and voluntary agreements and you can’t do that under federal motor vehicle safety laws.”

NHTSA before the end of the month is expected to issue guidelines for autonomous car technology. Nader said when crashes and fatalities involving autonomous vehicles begin occurring, people will demand regulatory action.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating the fatal crash of a Telsa Model S while it was in “Autopilot” mode in Williston, Florida, near Gainesville, on May 7. It is believed to be first U.S. death in a vehicle engaged in a semi-autonomous driving mode.

Nader said he believes Tesla CEO Elon Musk should either shut down the Autopilot features in his cars, or do something to force drivers to keep their hand on the steering wheel even while Autopilot is engaged.

“To put Autopilots on the highway without having a warning is reckless,” Nader said Thursday night ahead of his Hall of Fame induction. “It’s using our highways as guinea pig tests.”

Nader acknowledged that Musk is a great innovator who “jolted” the auto industry, but said he’s tried to do more with autonomous technology than is safe, and has overextended his company in terms of debt.

“But he’s pushing the envelope for himself too far and that often happens to innovators, they push a good thing too far,” he said.

Nader’s statements came as officials from the auto industry and federal government gathered in Detroit for a conference on automotive cybersecurity. NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind wouldn’t comment on the Tesla investigation, but said adoption of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicle systems shouldn’t slow because of one fatal accident.

“We cannot wait for perfect,” he said Friday. “We will lose too many more lives while we’re waiting for perfect.”

Last year 35,200 people died in auto crashes in the U.S., mostly due to driver error or inattention. Self-driving technology is expected to reduce crashes by 80 percent.

“We’re in a bad place,” Rosekind said. “We should be desperate for anything we can find that can save more of those lives.”

However, Nader said all of the publicity surrounding autonomous vehicles is distracting from the need to modernize mass transit.

“For 99.9 percent of passengers, it’s the best driverless vehicle to get you to your destination,” he said.

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Twitter: @evancarter_94

Staff Writer Melissa Burden contributed.