- the national transportation safety board is pointing to tesla and uber collisions as proof that nhtsa needs to better regulate self-driving-vehicle testing and driver-assistance features.
- the ntsb is the agency that investigates collisions and makes recommendations to nhtsa and other agencies, but nhtsa gets to decide if it wants to implement them.
- so far, nhtsa has been relatively hands off when it comes to regulating self-driving testing on public roads.
although both are safety-oriented government agencies, the national transportation safety board has long been critical of the national highway traffic safety administration for what it views as a hands-off approach to regulating driver-assistance systems and emerging autonomous cars. the ntsb has sent nhtsa a letter calling on the agency to impose stricter rules surrounding driver assistance and autonomous technology, using collision investigations with teslas and an uber test vehicle as examples of systems in need of more regulation.
in the letter, dated february 1, 2021, obtained by cnbc, ntsb chairman robert l. sumwalt lays out recommendations for nhtsa to better regulate automated driving systems' safety. sumwalt suggests that automakers include robust in-car driver monitoring systems, collision avoidance systems, and other safeguards to keep drivers from using driver-assistance systems outside of conditions they were built to accommodate.
"nhtsa's general and voluntary guidance of emerging and evolutionary technological advancements shows a willingness to let manufacturers and operational entities define safety. we urge nhtsa to lead with detailed guidance and specific standards and requirements," the letter states.
while the ntsb investigates accidents to determine their causes, they have no ability to establish standards or regulations. instead, the board makes recommendations to nhtsa and automakers based on their findings. nhtsa is tasked with establishing safety standards, mandating recalls, and creating a system that tracks vehicle safety, design, and fuel economy standards. the agency also tests vehicles' crashworthiness.
one of the ntsb's concerns is the testing of potential autonomous-driving technology on public roads without any sort of standard methodology for nhtsa to track vehicle data. in june 2020, the department of transportation (dot) announced a voluntary automated vehicle transparency and engagement for safe testing (av test) initiative. but without making it compulsory, there's no penalty for failing to report an issue with a test vehicle.
one company that comes up again and again in the letter is tesla. the automaker is currently running a beta program of its full self-driving feature on public roads with members of the public. the ntsb is concerned that tesla is doing this with 'limited oversight or reporting requirements." it also points to the fatal mountain view, california, collision of a tesla model x that resulted in the death of a driver for the need for nhtsa to develop performance standards for driver monitoring systems. the agency found that driver distraction (the driver may have been using a smartphone) and lack of oversight were at fault in the collision.
the ntsb also wants nhtsa to prioritize the development of minimum performance standards for collision avoidance technologies and to make these systems standard on all vehicles. it points to the crash investigation of an uber test vehicle in tempe, arizona, that resulted in the death of a pedestrian. in that collision, the ride-hailing company had disabled volvo's forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking systems.
the ntsb is also concerned about the lack of standardized data reporting of driver-assistance features from event-data recorders (edr). some of these recorders don’t even track driver-assistance features because there’s no regulation that tells automakers to do so. the ntsb points out that this data is could be crucial in determining the cause of a collision and help determine if the vehicle or the driver is at fault.
nhtsa has held off creating regulations pertaining to autonomous driving and driver-assistance features because the agency doesn't want to stymie innovation. meanwhile, states are free to create their own regulations about self-driving-vehicle testing, which has resulted in a patchwork of rules and laws.
arizona has become a hotbed for autonomous-vehicle testing because of its lax regulations about testing vehicles on public roads. california has also become a testing ground for autonomous vehicles, but it requires automakers to secure permits to test autonomous vehicles. that permit process recently led to tesla telling the state that fsd is level 2 automation and not self-driving after the state raised concerns about tesla owners beta-testing the company's long-awaited full self-driving feature on public roads.
sumwalt's letter lays out suggestions that would require automakers to report on their testing and for nhtsa to create systems to test autonomous driving and driver-assistance features in the same way that the agency tests items like crashworthiness. from those tests, nhtsa could create a ranking of the driver-assistance features much in the way that nhtsa has its five-star safety program. it would give potential buyers important safety information about vehicles they are shopping for and could spur automakers with vehicles that score badly to improve their systems. of course, it's still up to nhtsa to implement the recommendations.