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Questions Raised over the Safety of Tesla’s Autopilot and Other Driver Assist Technologies

Autonomous driving technologies were conceptualized to increase road safety, among other functions. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has reported nearly 400 car accidents involving autonomous cars in the last ten months.

The NHTSA cataloged 392 incidents between July 2021 and May 2015. These accidents resulted in five serious injuries and six fatalities. Attorney Felix Gonzalez of Felix Gonzalez Accident and Injury Law Firm advises, “if you or a loved one have been injured in a motor vehicle collision, it is best to speak with a seasoned personal injury attorney.”

Tesla cars equipped with Autopilot technology were involved in 273 crashes, five of which were fatal. Honda and Subaru autonomous cars were involved in 90  crashes. These statistics create a grim picture of the safety of Tesla’s autonomous driving technology.

However, it is impossible to draw feasible conclusions from this data. We cannot immediately accuse Tesla or conclude whether or not driver-assist technologies have improved road safety.

NHTSA’s Efforts

Before 2021, NHTSA’s response to driver assistance and autonomous driving technologies had been mostly passive. The auto-safety regulator neither collected data on related accidents nor implemented elaborate countermeasures.

Data on autonomous vehicles was primarily collected through direct outreach from automakers, media reports, and car owner questionnaires. These approaches were unreliable and inaccurate, constraining the tracking of accidents.

In 2021, NHTSA implemented the “Standing General Order on Crash Reporting for Level 2 Advanced Driver Assistance Systems.” This new requirement obligates car manufacturers to report all accidents where Level Two Driver Assistance technology was used within 30 seconds of the crash.

The regulation marks the first time the government has collected data on emerging automotive technologies. According to the NHTSA administrator Steven Cliff, the data will help investigators detect emerging defect trends promptly.

The collected data will also guide the development of requirements and rules for the design and use of autonomous driving technologies. The outcomes of the resultant controls will optimize road safety and provide an adequate understanding of autonomous vehicle performance in real-world situations.

Uncertainty with Collected Data

Cliff has cautioned individuals and organizations from drawing conclusions from data collected over the past ten months. The data does not fully account for the number of individual car brands on the roads and several driving dynamics, such as lane switching.

Approximately 830,000 Tesla cars equipped with driver-assistance technologies are operational in the United States. These numbers alone may explain why Tesla vehicles were involved in almost 70% of the reported accidents.

Tesla’s immediate competitors, including BMW, General Motors, and Ford Motors, have similar autonomous driving technologies. However, the automakers have struggled to match Tesla’s sales.

Fully driverless cars being tested on American roads by companies like Cruise, Argo AI, and Waymo were involved in 130 accidents. However, in over a third of these crashes, the autonomous car was stationary and hit by another vehicle.

Furthermore, in 11 of the 130 accidents, the driverless vehicle traveled on a  straight path and collided with another car changing lanes. This finding indicates minimal blame on the autonomous systems.

In November 2021, Tesla recalled almost 12,000 vehicles with faulty self-driving software that could have caused crashes. This case exhibits the company’s dedication to delivering safe autonomous cars.

The Takeaway

The recent effort by the NHTSA to collect data on road accidents involving cars equipped with autonomous driving technology is warranted. The derived insights can help optimize road safety and guide policymaking.

However, the general public and individual automakers should not draw any conclusions from the collected data. Several road and manufacturer dynamics are not immediately apparent in the data, necessitating caution during analysis.

The NHTSA has a better understanding of the collected data than the public and automakers. Thus, the regulator should be left to conduct all the pertinent analyses.