Self-Driving Standards

What's at stake: Though autonomous vehicles could greatly reduce car crashes and other incidents caused by driver error, the evolving technology also raises other safety questions. For instance, it's unclear how reliable autonomous systems will be, or how alert a human will need to be in a self-driving car.

As Congress considers legislation, Consumer Reports recently testified at a hearing on self-driving cars, held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The hearing comes as the number of traffic deaths in the U.S. is on the rise.

Our testimony—a consumer voice on a panel dominated by industry stakeholders—focused on exploring the safety potential of self-driving vehicles while ensuring that new challenges are anticipated and addressed. We stressed that lawmakers should require sensible, enforceable, evidence-based measures for the good of consumers.

"It's not clear what the actual safety impacts will be as companies extensively introduce automated driving systems," said William Wallace, CR's policy analyst, during his testimony. Compared with proven advanced active safety systems in cars today—such as automatic emergency braking with forward-collision warning—we know little about whether autonomous driving functionality will be safe. Wallace stressed that research should be released to the public.

To further our mission to advance car safety for consumers, CR welcomed David Friedman as our new director of cars and product policy and analysis. Friedman, who formerly served as both deputy and acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is a respected leader and innovator.

What you can do: Read Wallace's testimony for CR. You can also contact your lawmakers at senate.gov and house.gov and ask them to help establish strong rules for automakers and their advancements in automation.

Student-Aid Protections

What's at stake: Some for-profit career colleges have saddled students with steep debt without providing the education they promised. Though recent rules adopted by the Department of Education aim to prevent such abuse, the agency is now considering dialing back these safeguards.

The "Gainful Employment" rule, enacted in 2015 under former President Barack Obama, requires career colleges to demonstrate that their graduates are making a living wage despite student loan payments. The colleges risk losing their federal financial aid if, for example, a typical graduate's annual loan payment exceeds 20 percent of his or her discretionary income.

And last fall, the Department finalized "Borrower Defense" rules that make it easier for students to have federal loans discharged if a school defrauded or misled them.

CR helped shape both of these protections and recently joined more than 50 consumer groups to oppose the Department's efforts to delay, dismantle, and weaken them. Informed by years of public evidence and diverse stakeholder engagement, we believe these rules should be vigorously enforced, and even strengthened.

What you can do: Add your voice by sharing how student debt has affected your life, at ConsumersUnion.org/share-your-story/studentdebt.

The Robocall Resistance

What's at stake: Consumers are inundated with unwanted automated prerecorded marketing calls known as "robocalls" at all hours of the day. Not only are these computer-generated calls a nuisance, but the scammers behind many of them rip off Americans with convincing but phony sales pitches, to the tune of an estimated $350 million annually. And the epidemic is getting worse, because it's now easier for swindlers to trick you into answering. Technology has made it simple to "spoof" a phone number so that a robocall can show up on caller ID masked as a legitimate number in your area code.

The Federal Communications Commission is considering a proposal that would strengthen a phone company's ability to block spoofed numbers.

CR's advocates organized a group of consumer organizations in August to file comments with the Commission, urging the agency to move forward on the proposal, and to take additional steps, such as revising its proposed definition of the phrase "illegal robocall" to include autodialed or prerecorded text messages and voicemails.

What you can do: Almost 750,000 consumers have joined our End Robocalls campaign, which works to push the phone companies and the FCC for free, reliable tools to block robocalls. To join this effort, go to EndRobocalls.org. Or go to ConsumersUnion.org/end-robocalls/solutions for tips on how to block these maddening calls.

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