NHTSA Issues Initial Crash Report for Driver Assist Tech

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In 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) asked manufacturers to begin reporting vehicle accidents where Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and/or semi-autonomous driving aids were engaged. The agency was specifically interested in incidents where such systems were active at least 30 seconds prior to the crash, hoping it might shed some light as to the technologies at play while the industry continues to make it standard equipment.

The resulting data hasn’t exactly made modern safety systems look all that effective, especially considering they were long touted by automakers, safety regulators, and politicians as a pathway toward totally eliminating roadway fatalities. Meanwhile, quadrants of the automotive industry have taken to the media to collectively bemoan that the study needs more context before any real conclusions about the tech should be made. That’s true of any study. However part of that context involves the efficacy of those research efforts and what the parties involved ultimately want you to believe.

Based on the information provided by the NHTSA, it cataloged 392 separate incidents between July 1st of last year through May 15th, 2022. This already throws up a few red flags, starting with the limited sample size. The study was launched as part of a general standing order that obligated companies to share crash information and also gave the NHTSA supreme authority to acquire the relevant data. While preliminary, the intention was to take a broad snapshot of where the relevant technologies had left us in terms of safety.

But that’s going to be hard to do with just 367 reports coming back for analysis and genuinely surprising considering that number accounts for vehicles equipped with SAE Level 2. Advanced Driver Assistance Systems of this type are fairly commonplace on today’s market and include features like lane-keeping with assist, automatic emergency braking, crash avoidance tech, and adaptive cruise control (provided at least two of those systems work collaboratively).

Sadly, the NHTSA summary shows that a sizable portion of the data came via 139 consumer complaints. The largest data pool came from manufacturers’ telematic data, accounting for 258 incidents, with the remaining information coming by way of a handful of reports from law enforcement, field analysis, or the media. The agency noted that this made things tricky when it came down to analysis, as some automakers may not use systems that were engaged 30 seconds prior to a crash or lack the kind of information gathering on Level 2 ADAS engagement and telemetry.

This appears to have done a real number on Tesla, which accounted for 273 SAE Level 2 crashes tabulated by the NHTSA — six of which were reportedly fatal. Honda came in second, with 90 incidents reported, while Subaru’s 10 crashes left it in third place. No other manufacturer managed to break double digits, leaving the summary showing Tesla as representing the overwhelming majority of ADAS-related wrecks. Could the American EV manufacturer really be that far behind the curve or are there other factors influencing the data?

Some reporting has suggested AutoPilot shuts off one second before impact – Ed.

The above could simply be down to Tesla offering an inferior product. While I do believe Tesla’s Autopilot is among the easiest systems to use, it’s difficult for me to believe it’s substantially safer than the competition after the business abandoned lidar and other sensing equipment. However, there is something about Tesla representing the overwhelming majority of reported crashes that just doesn’t feel right. Growth notwithstanding, the automaker still only managed to sell 301,900 automobiles last year — whereas brands like Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota, and Honda all easily surpassed 1 million.

This presumably means Tesla has been selling overpriced trash or it’s being massively overrepresented in the NHTSA study. While arguments can be made for both, the latter seems the larger issue considering how the brand does its data collection. Then there’s the proverbial elephant in the room most people don’t much like discussing.

Government agencies have long been weaponized for political purposes and I’ve begun to fear this now applies to the NHTSA to some degree. It’s no secret that Tesla has been butting heads with the Biden administration’s energy plan. Elon Musk has repeatedly criticized the president’s desire to continue subsidizing electric vehicles on the grounds that government involvement is making the market uncompetitive. The CEO has likewise opposed linking any new incentives to union labor. As a result, we’ve previously seen Tesla be disinvited from White House events pertaining to the United States’ electrification efforts and increased regulatory pressure directed its way since Biden took office. But the brand is also viewed as an upstart within the industry, one whose very existence has been forcing legacy manufacturers to play its game as Musk hoovers up market share and pokes holes into claims that EVs will automatically be better for the environment.

Long story short, there are plenty of people that would rather Tesla not exist and the company’s previous actions (some of which were genuinely egregious) have cheesed off regulators to a point that they might be inclined to intervene. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) already has a probe looking into the Autopilot and has yet to do the same for the systems being used by its rivals. My guess is that the unfavorable reporting was probably the result of how its own telematics played into the study and its status within the industry ensuring that nobody else minded. But that’s still incredibly speculative and the NHTSA did at least attempt to frame the study as preliminary and in need of some additional context.

From the NHTSA:

This new data is the first of its kind, and the reports detail several important caveats and limitations to this dataset for researchers, the press and the public to consider. For a clear understanding of the data, users should read about the data limitations and the sources that manufacturers and operators used to collect and report crashes.

For example, some reporting entities provide the agency with robust data more quickly because their vehicles are equipped with telematics capabilities. Telematics is the most frequently cited source for data collected currently by the Standing General Order. Manufacturers and operators also rely on consumer complaints to begin collecting data, which are the second-largest source for [SAE Level 2] ADAS, and field reports, the second-largest source for ADS. Further, these data are not normalized by the number of vehicles a manufacturer or developer has deployed or by vehicle miles traveled. That information is held by manufacturers and not currently reported to NHTSA. Thus, these data cannot be used to compare the safety of manufacturers against one another.

Some initial observations from the data show that since reporting requirements began, one crash reported for [a Level 3-5] ADS-equipped vehicle resulted in serious injuries, and 108 of the crashes resulted in no injuries. Of the 130 reported crashes for ADS-equipped vehicles, 108 involved collisions with another vehicle, and 11 involved a vulnerable road user, such as a pedestrian or cyclist.

“The data released today are part of our commitment to transparency, accountability and public safety,” said Dr. Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s Administrator. “New vehicle technologies have the potential to help prevent crashes, reduce crash severity and save lives, and the Department is interested in fostering technologies that are proven to do so; collecting this data is an important step in that effort. As we gather more data, NHTSA will be able to better identify any emerging risks or trends and learn more about how these technologies are performing in the real world.”

Honda, which also took it on the chin, suggested that the resulting data makes it hard for any real comparisons to be made. Speaking with Automotive News, Chris Martin, a spokesman for American Honda, urged caution when going over the crash data reported to NHTSA, “as apple-to-apple comparisons simply may not be possible at this time.”

“[The data is] based on unverified customer statements regarding the status of ADAS systems at the time of a reported crash. Since Honda relies on unverified customer claims to comply with NHTSA’s 24-hour reporting deadline, it is likely that some reported incidents would not have met NHTSA’s reporting criteria given more definitive data and time,” he added.

He has a point. Even the NHTSA said that some of the tabulated crashes could be repeats, noting that the included incident reports may also be incomplete or unverified. That’s a pretty low bar for a government study that’s assumed to lead to tangible regulatory actions. Meanwhile, we’ve had a few years of independent studies suggesting that at least a portion of advanced driving aids don’t function as claimed. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the very nature of ADAS (and more elaborate driving assistance suites) effectively encourages motorists to become complacent to a degree that may make them less safe behind the wheel.

The NHTSA study is split into two relatively short summaries pertaining to crashes involving SAE Level 2 and the more advanced Level 3-5 that you’re welcome to read yourself. But neither paper seems to offer much in the way of hard data beyond the frequency in which certain brands were involved and what type of object ended up being struck by the cars in question — and even that’s been undermined by the agency’s own admission that there are severe limitations in how things were reported.

While this would have been forgivable in 2015, when the technology was just starting to manifest on passenger vehicles, policymakers and the broader industry have encouraged its proliferation for several years despite there not being much direct evidence that it’s actually making our roadways safer. In fact, we have data that per capita fatalities have increased rather dramatically since ADAS became normalized. It’s all very frustrating and makes it borderline impossible to draw any useful conclusions. Other outlets may not admit it, but the NHTSA has done an incredibly poor job of accurately assessing the efficacy of modern-day safety systems and most automakers haven’t exactly been forthcoming with their data.

[Image: General Motors]

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