Self-Driving-Car Safety

Traffic deaths were up 7 percent in 2015, the biggest annual spike in almost 50 years. In an effort to address concerns over these fatalities, the car industry has pointed to the potential of autonomous vehicles. In fact, certain manufacturers have already started equipping their rides with technology that relieves drivers of many cockpit duties. Such advances could make roads safer—eventually—but first, more needs to be done to protect drivers from the unique risks posed by automated driving.

Our experts recently spoke at separate hearings held by Congress and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, urging automakers and regulators to be vigilant in promoting safety at every step of autonomous development.

Of particular concern is the current crop of cars with automated driver-assistance systems. The cars aren’t fully self-driving, and consumers need to be ready to take over the controls at a moment’s notice. But some car companies aren’t clearly communicating what the systems can and can’t do. Consumers should be made aware of the limitations.

What’s more, CR believes that the auto industry should make its internal data on the technologies available to the government and the public. The benefits of driver-assistance systems are murky because companies keep their research under wraps.

To help you stay informed, CR now identifies in our ratings which models offer semi-autonomous features. Check out CR.org/selfdriving for more on this technology.

A Victory for Solar Power

Floridians have had theirfair share of political chaos over the years, but voters of all political stripes came together this past November on at least one front. They joined to defeat an industry-driven ballot initiative aimed at making it more difficult and expensive for consumers to switch to rooftop solar power. The utility industry tried hard to misrepresent the amendment as “pro solar,” and major power companies spent tens of millions of dollars in support of the deceptive ballot measure. But voters saw through the subterfuge and rejected it.

CR strongly opposed the initiative and worked to defeat it, alongside a diverse coalition of more than 200 organizations, elected officials, and thousands of concerned citizens.

“It was a cynical attempt by the utilities to deceive voters and would have cast a dark cloud over the Sunshine State’s ability to take advantage of plentiful solar power,” says Shannon Baker-Branstetter, energy and environment policy counsel for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of CR. “Floridians stood up to the utility giants and will benefit from the expansion of rooftop solar panels.”

As more households switch to solar, overall electric costs are likely to come down, leading to lower bills for all ratepayers. To find out whether solar is right for you, go to CR.org/solar0217 or see the August 2016 issue of the magazine.

Relief for College Debt

Students enrolled at schools that suddenly close—such as those who attended the scandal-plagued Corinthian Colleges—can be left in debt without receiving the education they signed on for.

“Hundreds of thousands of students have been harmed in recent years by predatory schools that have treated them as little more than dollar signs,” says Suzanne Martindale, staff attorney for Consumers Union.

All eyes have been on the government to step in as more schools failed, and thankfully, regulators just took action.

The Department of Education adopted new rules that provide a smoother pathway for students to cancel loans when schools engage in misconduct and that make it more difficult for colleges that commit fraud to stay in business.

Specifically, students who’ve been defrauded might be eligible as a group to have their loans automatically discharged instead of having to submit individual applications for relief. And financially troubled institutions must provide the government with a financial guarantee to protect against the risks they create.

Forced arbitration clauses will also be banned, preserving students’ legal rights.

CR is concerned, however, that the claim process still takes too long for wronged students, even when there’s substantial evidence of misconduct, as the former Corinthian students still waiting for relief bear witness.

We’re calling on the government to move swiftly to resolve claims and stop collection on debts in cases where people were clearly defrauded.

Go to CR.org/studentdebt to find more on the problematic student-loan industry.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the February 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.