Automotive > Autonomous Vehicles Blog

First AV Reports Due to NHTSA in Two Weeks

by Roger Lanctot | 8月 02, 2021

At the end of June, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published a General Order requiring auto makers and creators of automated vehicles to report all “incidents” (i.e. crashes) involving vehicles equipped with “Automated Driving Systems” (ADS) and “Level 2 Advanced Driver Assistance Systems” (ADAS) within one day of the event or within one day of the vehicle maker learning of the event. The order was a break with more than a decade of fairly hands-off regulatory oversight at the agency and had the flavor of a “shot across the bow” of the automated vehicle industry.

The General Order calls for both real-time (i.e. within 24 hours) reporting of events and a monthly report due on the 15th of the month summarizing all incidents from the past 30 days. The first such report is due on August 15th from the 108 companies notified in the Order.

The move was widely seen as an effort by NHTSA to engage with the industry and oversee the operation of autonomous vehicles and mass produced vehicles with driver assistance systems on public roads. Some saw the NHTSA announcement as part of a Tesla backlash.

Tesla crashes have routinely sent investigators from NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board into a reactive scramble to respond to a crash scene – not unlike the response to a plane crash – to determine physically and digitally how the crash occurred. Hanging over both regulators is their failure to rein in Tesla Motors and the dubiously named Autopilot and its accompanying caveats.

The desire to expose Tesla would explain NHTSA’s decision to include SAE Level 2 vehicles – so called because they come with semi-autonomous features such as adaptive cruise control with lane keeping, traffic jam assist, or full self parking. As a result, the NHTSA Order applies to millions of cars already on the road and has committed car makers to an unwelcome and onerous reporting obligation - and potential public relations fiasco.

The Order also stipulates that NHTSA incident reporting applies wherever and whenever said ADS/ADAS was operating at the time of the crash. Outside of AV test vehicles like those from Waymo and Cruise, auto makers generally have no notification process for when a mass produced vehicle is involved in a crash. There is also no process in place for determining whether a particular on board system was in operation at the time of the crash.

Historically, auto makers have had no process for identifying crashed vehicles for their own dealers, let alone to alert regulators. Under the NHTSA Order notification or awareness of a crash can be triggered by a media report which may include Twitter, Facebook, or Youtube along with local newspapers etc.

Less clear is how the data will be used. Will NHTSA start tabulating crash data for different makes and models? GM and others, currently bringing hands-free driving to the market with systems such as Super Cruise, may suddenly find themselves confronting public disclosures of crashes involving Super Cruise-equipped vehicles. Did Tiger Woods activate any of the safety systems in the Genesis GV80 he was driving before it crashed in February of this year? NHTSA will want a full report – next time – in 24 hours.

The auto industry’s crash detection blind spot was on full display in the GM ignition switch hearings seven years ago during which it became clear that GM had no idea that its cars were crashing, and lacked an understanding of the reasons. At least that is what the company claimed in its testimony.

Without any significant technological or regulatory progress since those GM ignition switch Congressional hearings, NHTSA is now arbitrarily requiring crash reports. The agency claims it is making this demand in the context of better understanding the nature of automated or semi-automated driving on public roads in the interest of identifying system weaknesses or flaws in order to protect the general public.

The only problem is that the information request form is insufficiently detailed and appears to emphasize a manual form completion process. More importantly, the activity is not supported by any additional funding or personnel. Assuming car makers are suddenly able to report all vehicle crashes effecting Level 2-5 vehicles (with activated safety systems) within 24 hours of their occurrence, what resources has NHTSA committed to processing the data and enforcing the requirement?

All of this is not to say that makers of vehicles with automated driving functions shouldn’t report crash data. They should. The challenge lies in the lack of vehicle maker awareness or notification of crashes and the availability of or access to data determining the operation or activation of on-board safety systems.

What a different world it would be if each car crash that resulted in an injury, fatality, or vehicle tow were treated as a serious incident worthy of analysis. Not only that, but imagine the learnings derived from that analysis were made public for consumers, dealers, and vehicle makers to better understand the efficacy of their automated and semi-automated driving systems.

NHTSA is essentially penalizing the entire automotive industry for the behavior of one bad actor: Tesla. In the end, the NHTSA reporting requirement stands to negatively impact makers of competing systems and vehicles – while showing Tesla in a more positive light.

Therein lies the rub. If, in the interest of overseeing automated driving development – both for full self-driving “robotaxis” and for semi-automated mass produced vehicles a la GM Super Cruise – NHTSA ends up casting more doubt on the GM’s, Nissan’s, and Hyundai’s of the world, the entire effort may be for naught. In a couple of weeks, as the first reports come in, hopefully we will get more clarity from the US Department of Transportation.

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