Advocates’ Statement on NTSB Tesla Hearing and NHTSA AV Guidelines

  • September 12, 2017
150 150 Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                            

September 12, 2017

Contact: Eric Naing, 202-408-1711, cell: 217-493-8294,


On a Collision Course: NTSB, Congress and U.S. DOT Sending Mixed Signals Will Result in Unsafe Autonomous Vehicles on Roads and Highways Throughout the Country

U.S. DOT and Congress Must Take Heed of the National Transportation Safety Board Hearing which exposed serious safety concerns about advanced vehicle technology being deployed with inadequate testing and no government oversight

Today, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a hearing on a fatal 2016 crash involving a Tesla Model S operating on Autopilot and a tractor-trailer truck. The devastating conclusions of the Board reveal what happens when the government takes a hands-off approach to hands-free driving. This should serve as an urgent alarm to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and Congress to take immediate action to regulate autonomous vehicle (AV) technology.

Right now, companies are only subject to voluntary guidelines issued by the U.S. DOT and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for the development and deployment of AVs. These guidelines, first issued in September 2016, were revised and updated today with the release of “Automated Driving Systems (ADS): A Vision for Safety 2.0”. This guidance should be no comfort to consumers as it is still voluntary, completely unenforceable, and stunningly inadequate to ensure safety and protect the public. The Tesla crash, sadly, will likely be just the first example demonstrating why the federal government needs to give AV manufacturers clear rules and regulations as they roll out this new technology into the marketplace.

Simultaneously, AV legislation is speeding through Congress without giving any credence to the NTSB findings. The Senate draft bill, the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies Act (AV START Act), does not even address Level 2 AVs, like the Tesla Model S involved in the fatal collision. Moreover, the Senate bill and the House-passed bill, the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution Act (SELF DRIVE Act, H.R. 3388), allow for possibly millions of AVs in the near future to be on the road that are exempted from federal motor vehicle safety standards. Additionally, neither bill requires any type of database to collect AV information so that any problems could be quickly identified and remedied.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (Advocates) has always championed auto safety technology, and for good reason. The NHTSA has estimated that since 1960, over 600,000 lives have been saved by motor vehicle safety technologies. Similarly, we believe that AVs may have the potential to mitigate or curtail the preventable deaths and injuries occurring from motor vehicle crashes. However, deliberate and comprehensive regulation is needed so that our roads do not become deadly “proving grounds” for AVs and autonomous commercial motor vehicles.

The NTSB deliberated over the probable cause of the crash and determined that the Autopilot system of the Tesla Model S facilitated the driver’s inattention and overreliance on the system, and thus contributed to his death. The Autopilot system failed to have adequate constraints to prevent it from being operated outside of its designed capabilities. This crash and the expected NTSB recommendations underscore the very real dangers and risk to drivers of AV systems as well as other road users with experimental technology that has not been adequately tested or reviewed by the federal government.

There continues to be a regulatory vacuum as neither Congress nor the U.S. DOT is willing to establish a strong regulatory framework for AVs. By merely issuing voluntary guidance, NHTSA completely dodges their responsibilities and duties. While Congress has gone further in at least requiring some minimal due diligence by manufacturers through the mandatory submission of safety assessment reports, both the House and Senate bills leave consumers vulnerable to major gaps in safety and huge lapses in security. Simply put, AVs are being developed, tested, and marketed right now with little oversight.

To ensure expeditious and safe development and deployment of AVs, the following issues must be addressed:

  • NHTSA must require that an autonomous system operate as intended and that all foreseeable problems be engineered out of the vehicle before it is deployed.
  • Exemptions must be significantly limited in scope and any increases must be controlled based on real-world safety performance.
  • NHTSA must be given imminent hazard authority to protect against potentially catastrophic AV defects.
  • NHTSA should be required to establish and maintain a current public database containing essential data for all AVs. Further, all communications and responses about AVs between NHTSA and manufacturers must be made available for public review.
  • States must not be precluded from fulfilling their role to protect their citizens in the absence of federal regulatory action.
  • NHTSA needs adequate and sufficient resources to properly regulate AV technology and should establish an office dedicated to ensuring oversight and accountability.

Technological advances, including the advent of AVs, hold tremendous promise for preventing crashes, saving lives, reducing injuries, and containing costs. In order to achieve the projected safety improvements and to ensure consumer acceptance, it is imperative that AVs be rolled out with safety and transparency at the forefront.  Unfortunately, actions thus far by the U.S. DOT and Congress fail to meet that mark.