The federal government has released two new reports that focus for the first time on accidents and fatalities involving autonomous vehicles (AV) and vehicles equipped with Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS). Tesla reported the most accidents involving driver assistance technology, while Alphabet’s Waymo reported the most incidents involving its autonomous vehicles.
Auto and tech companies insist that these technologies save lives, but more people died in car accidents last year than in the past three decades. More data is needed to accurately determine whether these new systems make roads safer or just make driving easier.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a permanent general order last year requiring auto companies to report accidents involving Level 2 AVs and driver assistance systems found in hundreds of thousands of vehicles on the road today. The agency required companies to document crashes when ADAS and automated technologies were in use within 30 seconds of the impact.
At level 2, the vehicle can control steering and acceleration and deceleration, but it is not fully autonomous because a human sits in the driver’s seat and can take control of the car at any time. Levels 3-5 refer to autonomous vehicles that control driving under specific conditions or, in the case of Level 5, under all conditions. (Notably, no Level 5 vehicles exist today.) More than 100 companies were subject to the new reporting requirements, including Tesla, Ford and GM, as well as AV operators such as Waymo and Cruise.
To be safe, the data is limited
To be sure, the data is limited and misses important details such as the number of vehicles produced, the number of vehicles in use and the distances traveled by those vehicles. Companies can rely on various criteria when reporting incidents. For example, some automakers receive crash reports through vehicle telematics, while other companies have to rely on unverified customer claims.
Officials warned against drawing conclusions based on the figures in the reports alone. The NHTSA expects to release new crash data every month in an effort to bring more transparency to what was previously an opaque technology.
“We started this effort because we want, we expect to create safety at every stage of a vehicle’s development,” said Steven Cliff, chief administrator at NHTSA, during a briefing with reporters. “Driver assistance and automation technologies are no exception.”
Tesla’s numbers were much higher than other companies, most likely due to the fact that it sells more vehicles equipped with Level 2 systems than its rivals. †one estimate puts the number of Tesla vehicles with Autopilot or “Full Self-Driving” at 825,970.) Tesla collects real-time telematics data from its customers, giving it a much faster reporting process. Other automakers typically have to wait for reports from the field and sometimes don’t receive them for months.
From July 20, 2021 to May 21, 2022, there were 273 accidents involving Tesla vehicles using Autopilot, according to the report. The EV company’s accidents account for the bulk of the total of 392 reported accidents during that period.
Other automakers didn’t come close to Tesla’s number of reported crashes. Honda, which sells its ADAS features under the “Honda Sensing” brand, reported 90 crashes. Subaru, which packages its ADAS under “EyeSight”, reported 10 crashes. Ford announced five crashes, Toyota four crashes, BMW three crashes and General Motors, maker of Super Cruise, only announced two crashes. Aptiv, Hyundai, Lucid, Porsche and Volkswagen each reported one crash.
Of the 392 accident reports, only 98 contained information about the seriousness. In the nine-month reporting period, there were six accidents with serious injuries and five fatalities. NHTSA officials have not disclosed the manufacturers that reported the fatalities, but said the information would be included in the raw data released Wednesday.
(After this story was published, NHTSA posted the raw data fileswhich determined that nine of the reported fatalities involved Tesla vehicles and two Ford vehicles.)
During the briefing, officials declined to answer specific questions about Tesla and warned against drawing conclusions about any particular company. But there’s no question that Tesla is an outlier when it comes to driver assistance technology.
During the briefing, officials declined to answer specific questions about Tesla
Since the company introduced Autopilot in 2015, there have been at least 11 dead in nine accidents in the US involving the driver assistance system. Internationally, at least nine more people have died in seven additional accidents. The NHTSA is currently investigating nearly three dozen incidents in the US with Tesla Autopilot. And last week, the agency upgraded its probe to a dozen crashes involving stationary emergency vehicles, bringing Tesla one step closer to a possible recall.
Tesla, for its part, claims that Autopilot is safer than human driving. The company gives a “safety report” every three months showing the number of miles between crashes when drivers use Autopilot and the number of miles between crashes when they don’t. But Tesla neglects to include crucial information in its reports, such as where it is most driven and how it compares based on different driving environments. Other companies don’t release any security statistics at all regarding their Level 2 systems.
The NHTSA also reported the types of collisions with vehicles with Level 2 equipment. Of the 392 accidents, 119 involved another vehicle. Four crashes involved ‘vulnerable road users’, three of which were pedestrians and the rest a cyclist.
And unsurprisingly, most of the ADAS crashes (125) happened in California, which also happens to be the state with the most registered Tesla vehicles.
The NHTSA received reports of 130 accidents involving vehicles equipped with Automatic Driving Systems (ADS) from July 2021 to May 2022. These are test vehicles or vehicles that are part of an operator-owned AV fleet – not vehicles for sale to the public.
Waymo, an Alphabet subsidiary, reported 62 crashes. Transdev Alternative Services, which operates self-driving shuttles, reported 34 accidents. And Cruise, a majority subsidiary of GM, reported 23 crashes.
Again, this reflects the reality of the AV testing world, which is currently dominated by Waymo and Cruise. Together, the two companies are responsible for the majority of the miles driven in California, which serves as the zero point for most AV testing in the US. Waymo said it drove 2.3 million miles in 2021, while Cruise reported having driven 876,104 miles.
These facts, of course, go unmentioned in the NHTSA reports, which lack a lot of contextualizing information. The agency says the main reason for the standing order was to obtain a new dataset to be able to respond to real-time performance. Officials noted that one recall has already been issued as a result of the standing order. Earlier this year, AV operator Pony.ai agreed to recall some versions of its software after a crash in California. The company also had its testing license revoked by California authorities.
Waymo claims to have a better safety record than most AV companies, but the company is still involved in a number of incidents. The company published 6.1 million miles of driving data in Arizona in 2019 and 2020, including 18 crashes and 29 near misses. In those incidents where the security officers took control of the vehicle to avoid a crash, Waymo engineers simulated what would have happened if the driver hadn’t turned off the vehicle’s self-driving system to generate a counterfactual. The company has also made some of its data available to academic researchers.
The NHTSA says 25 companies operating ADS-equipped vehicles reported 130 accidents over the nine-month period. Of those accidents, only one reported serious injuries. There were no deaths.
The NHTSA says it releases new data every month. But automakers and AV operators are confident that the numbers will be misinterpreted by the public. To be sure, these companies have made broad claims about autonomous technology and its potential to improve driving safety and reduce accidents and fatalities – with little evidence to back this up. Meanwhile, security advocates have pushed for new policies that would help reduce the number of cars on the road and encourage people to use safer modes of transport, such as public transit, cycling and walking.
All this is taking place against the background of a mounting crisis on American roads. More people died in car-related accidents last year than in any year since 2005. The estimates of the NHTSA that 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic accidents in 2021, an increase of 10.5 percent from 38,824 fatalities in 2020. Those killed include pedestrians, cyclists and others who may have died in an accident.
All of this is taking place against the backdrop of a mounting crisis on US roads
The increase in the number of deaths corresponds to an increase in the number of vehicle kilometers travelled. There are also more people driving dangerously, a trend from the pandemic that continues unabated. The Biden administration says it is committed to making changes to improve safety, but officials rarely talk about the need to reduce reliance on cars.
The NHTSA is trying to get the guns around the problem. Earlier this year, the agency announced a major upgrade to its five-star rating system for new vehicles, the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). For the first time, the NHTSA will consider the inclusion of ADAS features such as automatic emergency braking, blind spot detection and lane assist. These ADAS features, which are quickly becoming standard in most vehicles today, could become essential criteria for a five-star government safety rating.
It is a tricky situation for the NHTSA, which is simultaneously promoting these new technologies while also disclosing incidents when the vehicles equipped with these systems are involved in an accident. Steven Cliff of the NHTSA acknowledged it’s a fine line to walk, but the agency is committed to transparency.
“This is an unprecedented effort to collect near real-time security data related to these advanced technologies,” Cliff said. “Understanding the story the data tells will take time, as most of NHTSA’s work does, but it’s a story we need to hear.”
Update June 15, 2:50 PM ET: Updated to include information on which ADAS-equipped vehicles were involved in the 11 fatal crashes during the reporting period.