NHTSA report shows Tesla Autopilot led the pack in crashes, but data has gaps

At first glance, the data from the first year of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s project to track the safety of advanced driver assistance systems looks dire for Tesla. Its electric vehicles were involved in 70% of reported crashes involving Level 2 technologies, 60% of those resulting in serious injuries, and nearly 85% of fatalities. The data released early Wednesday was collected under the federal regulator’s Permanent General Order issued last June, which requires automakers to report the most serious accidents involving Level 2 ADAS, which need a human driver to remain fully involved in the driving task. NHTSA is also tracking crashes involving fully automated vehicles, neither of which are currently available to consumers. There are five levels of automation under standards created by SAE International. Level 2 means that two functions, such as adaptive cruise and lane keeping, are automated and still have a human driver in the loop at all times. Level 2 is an advanced driver assistance system and has become increasingly common in newer vehicles. Tesla topped the ADAS list for all the wrong reasons: 273 reported accidents, three with serious injuries and five fatalities. Honda trailed Tesla far behind with 90 accidents and one fatality, while most other manufacturers reported only a few. Nissan reported none at all. So does that mean Tesla owners should trade in their Model 3 with Autopilot for a Nissan Leaf and its own Level 2 ADAS, called ProPilot? It is a more complicated question than one might think. The way the Order is worded, the technologies Tesla has implemented, and the sheer number of Tesla vehicles on the road mean that their vehicles may not be as dangerous as the numbers suggest. For starters, there are more ADAS-equipped Teslas on the road (around 830,000) than vehicles from other manufacturers, though Nissan is not far behind with 560,000. Tesla’s Autopilot can also be used on a variety of roads, unlike Nissan’s ProPilot and GM’s SuperCruise systems, which are limited to freeways. Without knowing the number of miles driven with each ADAS system in operation and where, it is impossible to compare their relative levels of safety, or how each might contrast with crash rates under full human control. The Order required manufacturers to report all incidents known to them, but most vehicles on the road do not have remote telematics that sends vehicle data back to the factory. Manufacturers of these cars relied on consumer complaints (which comprised most of the reports), law enforcement contacts, or media stories, all of which may not have accurately reported whether their ADAS systems were faulty. In use. Tesla, on the other hand, knows exactly which vehicles were using Autopilot when they crashed, as its vehicles have cellular and Wi-Fi connections that automatically report vehicle data when a crash occurs. Nearly all of its failure reports came from such telematics, compared to just nine from Subaru, four from GM, three from Lucid, and one from Honda. Finally, the Order required manufacturers to include data on accidents that became known to them as of 10 days after notification of the Order last June. In Tesla’s case, that apparently included crashes dating back to 2019, including three of its five fatal crashes and all three serious ones. (It’s not clear why Tesla was only notified of those accidents months or years after they happened.) Aside from Tesla, only Honda reported a couple of accidents before June 2021. While all of these variables seem to point in the same direction: one more relative-Tesla accident data reporting and underreporting of accidents involving other automakers. Automobiles: Their impact is impossible to quantify from NHTSA data alone. Perhaps all Level 2 systems are more dangerous than human drivers alone, due to driver inattention. Or it could be the case that Tesla Autopilot, as implemented, is in fact less competent and more dangerous than rival ADAS technologies. “The data released today is a good start, but it does not provide an exact comparison of advanced vehicle safety,” said Jennifer Homendy, president of the National Transportation Safety Board. “What NHTSA provided was a ‘fruit bowl’ of data with many caveats, making it difficult for the public and experts to understand what is being reported. Independent data analysis is key to identifying any security gaps and potential solutions.” The final word on Autopilot will have to wait for NHTSA’s ongoing and recently expanded independent investigation into Autopilot, which could potentially lead to a recall. In the meantime, drivers with Level 2 systems in their cars are advised to heed the NHTSA’s advice: “No commercially available motor vehicle today is capable of driving itself.”