On Monday, the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that it opened an investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot system in its 2014 – 2021 Models Y, X, S, and 3.
The investigation results from 11 incidents identified by NHTSA, in which Tesla Models with Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control engaged in the approach, collided with first responder scenes since January 2018. Most of these incidents took place in the dark, and they included different safety measures such as vehicles lights, flares, traffic cones, and an illuminated arrow board. In total, there were 17 injuries and one death as a result of these interactions.
Autopilot is Tesla’s Level 2 Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS). Autopilot can assist with lane centering, speed control, and braking. However, despite its name, Autopilot does not operate autonomously and is intended to assist drivers who are still focused on the operation of the vehicle. Some safety advocates have suggested that the Autopilot moniker, and Tesla’s insistence that its cars have “full self-driving capacity”, is misleading and makes consumers overconfident about the car’s ability.
In fact, on Wednesday, August 18th, Senators Markey (D-MA) and Blumenthal (D-CT) sent a letter to Federal Trade Commissioner Lina Khan urging an investigation into “potentially deceptive and unfair practices in Tesla’s advertising and marketing of its driving automation systems.” They ask the FTC to “take appropriate enforcement action to ensure the safety of all drivers on the road.”
While both the Senators and the NTSB have previously expressed concern about Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving capability (FSD), this latest action from NHTSA continues to display a newfound willingness under the Biden Administration to scrutinize the autonomous vehicle features and industry. In June, NHTSA issued a standing general order requiring manufacturers to submit information concerning wrecks that involved Automated Driving Systems (Level 3-5) and Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (Level 2). Weeks prior, the Department of Transportation issued a request for public comment on “the development of a framework for Automated Driving System (ADS) safety.”
Under previous administrations, the autonomous industry and features were primarily governed by state guidance without much federal interference. Currently, despite possible impending regulations, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) still constitutes as the most significant form of federal regulation for AVs and ADAS. Under this guidance, the US autonomous industry has flourished and developed technology that is largely recognized as the most advanced in the world. Federal regulators’ new approach to the autonomous industry is a sign of the sector’s maturity and a possible harbinger of things to come. Simply put, new regulation signifies that autonomous technology and vehicles are close to being a reality. These interactions with federal agencies result from the progress made by the autonomous industry over the past few years. Even still, it is possible that new regulations could harm the autonomous sector, especially in comparison to stakeholders overseas.
In May of 2021, Dan Ammann, the CEO of Cruise, a GM-backed autonomous vehicle company, sent a letter to President Biden asking that his administration back legislation to raise the national cap on vehicles that a company can seek to have exempted from the FMVSS. Mr. Ammann pitched the autonomous sector as the next frontier in the US and China’s economic competition in his letter. He made it clear that China’s government-backed AV industry had no such regulations to contend with and urged President Biden to support the US AV Industry before foreign competitors gained an insurmountable advantage. President Biden has been outspoken about the need for the US to modernize in relation to the Chinese economy. Indeed, federal regulators must be aware that new restrictions or regulations do not harm the burgeoning autonomous sector’s ability to keep pace with the global AV community.
The Driverless Commute will continue to watch the autonomous space, keeping you informed of any news or potential regulation from federal agencies. Subscribe to our newsletter to make sure you never miss a post and check out our resources, like our Global Guide to Autonomous Vehicles.