Automakers Report Nearly 400 Crashes of Cars That Used Driver-Assist Tech
DETROIT — Automakers reported nearly 400 crashes over a 10-month period involving vehicles with partially automated driver-assist systems, including 273 with Teslas, according to statistics released Wednesday by U.S. safety regulators.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cautioned against using the numbers to compare automakers, saying it didn’t weight them by the number of vehicles from each manufacturer that use the systems, or how many miles those vehicles traveled.
Under an order by the agency, automakers have reported accidents from July 2013 to May 15, and the agency is now looking at such crashes more broadly.
“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,” said Steven Cliff, the agency’s administrator.
Tesla’s crashes happened while vehicles were using Autopilot, “Full Self-Driving,” Traffic Aware Cruise Control, or other driver-assist systems that have some control over speed and steering. About 830,000 of the company’s vehicles are equipped with one or more of these systems.
Honda came in second with 90 crashes out of 12 automakers. Honda claims that there are approximately six million cars on U.S. streets equipped with these systems. Subaru followed with 10, while the rest of automakers reported only five.
NHTSA directed more than 100 automobilemakers and companies involved in automated vehicle technology to notify the agency of serious crashes within an hour of becoming aware of them. The order was also to inform the NHTSA of less-severe crashes by the fifteenth of each following month. NHTSA is currently evaluating the performance of these systems and determining whether any new regulations are necessary.
NHTSA stated that the driver-assist system crashes resulted in six deaths and five serious injuries. Ford was the only one to report one death. Five deaths were in Teslas. The Teslas sustained three of the severe injuries, and Ford reported one.
Tesla’s crash number may appear elevated somewhat because it uses telematics to monitor its vehicles and get real-time crash reports. Other automakers don’t have such capability, so their reports may come slower or crashes may not be reported at all, NHTSA said. Tesla representatives were not available for comment.
Tesla’s crashes accounted for nearly 70% of the 392 reported by the dozen automakers. Although the Austin, Texas, automaker calls its systems Autopilot and “Full Self-Driving,” it says the vehicles cannot drive themselves and the drivers must be ready to intervene at all times.
Safety advocates for autos say self-driving and driver-assist systems can save lives. However, NHTSA must set minimum standards of performance and require safety improvements in order to ensure all road users are protected.
“It’s clear that U.S. road users are unwitting participants in beta testing of automated driving technology,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said that although NHTSA’s data has limitations, it’s not isolated evidence that Tesla has ignored regulations, putting the public in danger. There has been “a never ending parade of reports” of Teslas on automated systems rolling through stop signs or braking for no reason, he said. Teslas that hit emergency vehicles parked in their path are being investigated by NHTSA.
“As today’s data suggests, this contempt for auto safety laws has real-world consequences,” Markey said while urging NHTSA to take enforcement action.
Many Tesla owners enjoy the automated system. Craig Coombs, from Alameda in California said that he used the system on highway trips and stop-and go traffic. “They really reduce driver fatigue overall,” he said.
He gives himself a “moderate” grade for paying attention while using the system but says he never takes his mind off the road entirely. He knows the technology isn’t perfect, and said he has had to take over driving at times.
NHTSA stated that manufacturers were not required by law to disclose how many vehicles have these systems on their roads. They also weren’t required to report the distance traveled or the time the system was used. At present, those numbers aren’t quantifiable, an agency official said.
Officials said that NHTSA used data from the investigation to open an investigation, request a recall and give information about existing investigations.
“This will help our investigators quickly identify potential defect trends that can emerge,” Cliff said. “These data will also help us identify crashes that we want to investigate and provide more information about how people in other vehicles interact with the vehicles.”
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Honda stated that the system packages have been made to make it easier for customers to buy more. “The population of vehicles that theoretically could be involved in a reportable event is much greater than the population of vehicles built by automakers with a less-aggressive deployment strategy,” the company said.
NHTSA reports are also based upon unverified statements from customers about automated systems running during a crash. Honda indicated that those crashes could not be reported to NHTSA if more data are gathered.
NHTSA’s order also covered companies that are running fully autonomous vehicles, and 25 reported a total of 130 crashes. Waymo, a Google spinoff, was the most popular with 62 crashes. Next came Transdev Alternative Services (34), and General Motors’ Cruise LLC (23)
Waymo, Alphabet Inc.’s autonomous vehicle unit, claimed it had more than 700 of these vehicles. In Arizona, the company operates a fully-autonomous ride-hailing service and is testing another in California. All the accidents occurred at slow speeds and only two air bags were inflated in any of the cases.
There were 108 fully-autonomous vehicles involved in the crash. No serious injuries and no reported injuries. Vehicles were most often struck at the rear in the majority of crashes.
Larry Fenn, AP Data Journalist in New York, and Terry Chea, Video Journalist in Alameda (California), contributed. The story was corrected to reflect that there were six fatalities and five severe injuries in these crashes.
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