New NHTSA chief pledges to scrutinize driver-assist systems like Tesla Autopilot

Steven Cliff, who was confirmed as the new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) last month, recently stated that the agency would be intensifying its efforts to understand the risks and benefits posed by automated driver-assist technologies like Tesla Autopilot.

When Cliff joined the NHTSA, he was surprised to see that the agency did not have data on automated vehicle crashes. As a result of this, Cliff noted that he challenged the NHSTA to come up with a report. The initial data from these efforts was released recently, and it revealed that Tesla accounted for nearly 70% of reported crashes involving Level 2 driver-assist systems in the US.

Vehicles with automated driver-assist systems were involved in almost 400 crashes from July 2021 to May 2022. While this may seem like a substantial number, however, it is but a small fraction of the accidents that happened on US roads last year. In 2021 alone, the NHTSA estimated that about 43,000 were killed on the road, the highest figure in 16 years.

In an interview, Cliff was quick to point out that while Tesla accounts for the lion’s share of crashes involving vehicles equipped with automated driver-assist systems, the company also has its driver-assist system on nearly all of its roughly 830,000 cars on US roads. This, together with the fact that Tesla provides near instantaneous wireless reporting of crashes, makes it quite difficult to compare the company’s results with other automakers.

The NHTSA has initiated a number of probes into Teslas since Cliff’s arrival. That being said, Cliff pointed out that Tesla has been cooperative since his arrival at the agency. The new NHTSA chief noted that Tesla is quite proactive, and the agency’s relationship with the automaker has been good.

“I think we work well with them. And when we have identified that there are risks, they’ve taken action, and that’s appropriate,” Cliff said.

Overall, the new NHTSA chief stated that he believes federal standards are needed to regulate automated driver-assist technologies. However, Cliff noted that he would like to avoid rushing, as new rules may potentially end up compromising safety.

“Any time we put a regulation on the books, we have to define not only what standard that technology needs to be held to, but we need to have an objective way to measure the performance of the system to ensure that it actually complies with the regulation,” the new NHTSA chief said.

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