Self-driving cars are a bad move, says consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
Today, on the 50th anniversary of the publication of his landmark book, Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader says the auto industry should put the brakes on automated driving.
"It's leading to the emerging great hazard on the highway, which is distracted driving," Nader said. The auto industry wants "to turn cars into entertainment arenas, mobile offices. Distracted driving is already generating thousands of deaths per year. They are ballyhooing the driverless cars when the algorithms are nowhere near as specific as serendipitous situations on the road in congested traffic."
Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that 10 percent of 2014's traffic fatalities were caused by distracted driving.
Nader, speaking with Automotive News from his office in Washington, said he's not against much of the technology in today's vehicles, just the way some of it is being used.
"There are definite benefits of collision-avoidance systems," Nader said. "But the problem is once the auto companies get on to something, they don't know when to stop. And so they are turning the automobile into an ever more complicated computer on wheels. Which means that the driver is losing control to the software, and the more the driver loses control to the software, the less the driver is going to be able to control the car down the road."
On Nov. 30, 1965, Nader's book helped launch the auto safety movement in America. The book helped prompt Congress in 1966 to create the agency that became NHTSA in 1970. No longer would the auto industry be self-regulating when it came to safety.
Though the 277-page book is often linked in its entirety to the Chevrolet Corvair, only one of its eight chapters deals with the rear-engined GM compact, which was built from 1959 to 1969. The first-generation Corvair had a rear suspension design that could cause accidents, sometimes fatal, in certain conditions if the tires were not properly inflated. GM redesigned the car in 1965 and fixed the problem.
The other chapters deal with dangerous surfaces in interiors that caused injuries in accidents, lack of seat belts, inconsistent automatic transmission shift quadrants, windshield glass and how design often took precedence over safety. The final chapter, "The Coming Struggle For Safety," called for the government to force automakers to build safer cars.
After the formation of NHTSA's predecessor came the first legislation requiring laminated safety glass, dual circuit braking systems, standard seat belts, stronger door latches, additional lighting and other safety improvements.
Fatalities per millions of miles driven began to fall, going from 5.30 in 1965 to 1.11 in 2013. Traffic deaths in the U.S. peaked in 1972 at 54,589 and were 32,675 in 2014, NHTSA data show.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, founded by Nader and Consumers Union in 1970, calls Nader's book and his activism a seminal event in the history of automobile safety.
"The book played a major role in the passing of the 1966 act. The lasting impact is that the automakers came under federal regulators. When Congress held its hearings, Nader played a significant role in that, pointing out that the voluntary SAE [Society of Automotive Engineers] standards were a failure," Ditlow said.
In 2011, Time magazine placed Unsafe at Any Speed at No. 21 on its list of 100 All-Time Nonfiction books.