The auto industry is holding its fire — for now — over the new requirement to report crashes involving vehicles equipped with partially and fully autonomous driving systems. But automakers are also distancing themselves from the company that appears to be the primary target of the new rule: Tesla.
The rule, issued yesterday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, requires companies like Tesla and Alphabet’s Waymo to report incidents involving driver assistance and autonomous systems within one day of learning of a crash, a major change that signals a tougher stance by regulators.
So far, car companies are taking a wait-and-see approach, mostly lauding NHTSA’s commitment to safety and transparency, while objecting to the perceived conflation of driver-assistance systems, like Tesla’s Autopilot, with fully autonomous vehicles like those operated by Waymo. While many autonomous vehicles are deployed in states with regulations on the books, advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) like Tesla’s Autopilot fall in a legal gray area that allowed incidents to escape further examination.
Most of the individual companies declined to comment on the ruling, preferring to speak through the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group that represents all of the major automakers and their suppliers — but notably not Tesla. The alliance released a statement that singled out “misuse and abuse” of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).
“As we evaluate NHTSA’s new reporting obligations, it’s critical that consumers know and understand the benefits—and limitations—of these features to build and improve confidence in proven vehicle safety technologies,” said John Bozzella, the group’s president, in a statement. “Misuse and abuse of Level 2 ADAS systems is extremely dangerous and threatens consumer acceptance and confidence in vehicles equipped with potentially life-saving ADAS technologies.”
Bozzella also noted that last April, “automakers representing nearly 99 percent of the new vehicles sold in the US” signed a pledge committing to “effective driver monitoring systems for Level 2 vehicles.” Driver monitoring systems typically rely on in-car cameras to ensure that drivers are watching the road while using driver-assistance systems.
Companies like General Motors and Ford currently sell cars with camera-based eye-tracking systems that are meant to make sure drivers pay attention while using hands-free driving features.
But Tesla, which many observers noted seems to be the primary target of this new NHTSA rule, has historically resisted regulatory pressure to add better driver monitoring in its cars. That may be changing, though. The latest software update release notes imply that Tesla will begin using the camera above the rear-view mirror in the Model 3 and Model Y to help make sure people pay attention to the road while using Autopilot.
But the company hasn’t said anything publicly about this change. And a spokesperson for Tesla did not respond to a request for comment for this story, which isn’t surprising considering the company has eliminated its public relations department and hasn’t responded to a request for comment in nearly two years.
Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk have long been criticized for overstating the capabilities of the company’s Autopilot system, which in its most basic form can center a Tesla vehicle in a lane and around curves and adjust the car’s speed based on the vehicle ahead. The use of brand names like Autopilot and “Full Self-Driving” has also helped contribute to an environment in which Tesla customers are misled into believing their vehicles can actually drive themselves.
Since Tesla introduced Autopilot in 2015, there have been at least 11 deaths in nine crashes in the US that involved the driver assistance system. Internationally, there have been at least another nine deaths in seven additional crashes.
The company’s silence is especially notable given the company’s shifting relationship with US regulators. NHTSA, which enforces federal motor vehicle safety standards, has been criticized for misrepresenting Autopilot’s safety record and for giving the company a pass on customers who misuse the technology. NHTSA recently disclosed that it has opened 27 investigations into crashes of Tesla vehicles, 23 of which remain active. Despite this, Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently tweeted that “NHTSA is great.”
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates crashes involving partially and fully autonomous vehicle crashes, has proven more willing to point fingers at Musk’s company. An NTSB investigation into the 2018 death of a Tesla owner in California said Autopilot was partly to blame. Musk has been much more hostile toward the agency, at one point hanging up on the chairman of NTSB.
Another trade group, the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which represents AV companies including Waymo, Argo, Aurora, Cruise, and others, echoed similar concerns voiced by the legacy auto industry about grouping their vehicles in with Level 2 cars like Tesla.
“Clear national reporting standards can be an important means to increase public understanding of autonomous vehicles,” said Ariel Wolf, general counsel of the group, in a statement. “But there must be a distinction between our members’ autonomous vehicles—which do not require human intervention to operate safely—and driver assistance technology like Tesla’s, which requires an attentive driver.”
In his statement, Wolf implied that the NHTSA rule was issued without consulting industry players about what was being required of it. He said that the coalition hopes to “restart … constructive conversations” with the agency on the work of improving safety.
Speaking of safety, auto safety groups lauded the new NHTSA rule requiring crash reporting. Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the rule will provide NHTSA with the necessary data to “determine the safety of the crash avoidance and automated driving systems,” which the government has previously lacked.
Chase noted that the rule is especially timely given that legislation currently pending in Congress barely requires any data collection from the private sector. “History and experience have repeatedly shown that voluntary agreements fail to yield accurate, comprehensive and reliable results,” she said.
Two car companies, Volkswagen and Honda, replied to The Verge’s request for comment on the new rule. VW, which is working with Argo on autonomous vehicle technology, said it looks forward to “working with NHTSA on the principles underlying the standing order announced today.”
Meanwhile, Honda, which has invested in Cruise and helped design the company’s fully driverless shuttle, noted that its current driver-assistance products, AcuraWatch and Honda Sensing, on the sale in the US “are considered Level 1 ADAS. Thus, there is no immediate requirement related to our vehicles.”