Two major US auto industry lobby groups are pushing for updates to federal vehicle safety regulations following major accidents involving Tesla vehicles.
During a Senate subcommittee hearing Tuesday, executives from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation and the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association said the U.S. needed better standards and protocols to sell automated driving systems like Tesla’s under the Autopilot and Full Self-Driving brand names to address.
Tesla has been critical of the development, testing, and marketing of these systems, including the failure to prevent drivers from misusing or overestimating the capabilities of the autopilot and FSD.
There are questions about whether autopilot or FSD were in any way to blame for the recent Tesla accidents that the National Transportation Safety Board and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are investigating. To date, the NHTSA has initiated around 28 investigations into Tesla vehicle accidents, of which around 24 are active. NTSB has launched 8 such investigations.
Automated driving systems or driver assistance systems can control some functions of a vehicle. However, automakers continue to require drivers to remain alert and drive even when the systems are in use.
In general, driver assistance is based on a mixture of cameras and sensors. Some automakers use advanced maps along with sensors to restrict the use of their systems to specific streets.
Despite their commercial availability, the United States does not regulate precise federal regulations or performance standards for automated driving systems.
“The US is at risk of losing our competitive advantage because of a lack of clear national guidelines,” said Ann Wilson, senior vice president of government affairs for the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, during the hearing on Tuesday. She later added, “NHTSA can and should do more.”
John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, said a “more strategic and robust approach” is needed for the government’s New Car Assessment program. He also said any modernization of the government’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), which set requirements for the design, construction, performance and durability of vehicles, should also be analyzed in relation to highly automated and autonomous vehicles.
“We need a national strategy, a framework that accommodates a new kind of regulation,” he said.
The comments came Tuesday afternoon during a Senate Land Transport, Shipping, Freight and Ports subcommittee on how automotive innovations will affect the future of vehicle safety, mobility and technology in a global economy.
It came a day after three Democratic U.S. Senators on Monday introduced laws mandating performance standards for driver monitoring systems and requiring those systems to be installed in new vehicles.
Tesla is not a member of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation or the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association. The company did not respond to a comment.
A steering wheel light bar and cluster icons indicate the status of Super Cruise ™ and prompt the driver to return their attention to the road if the system detects that the driver’s attention has been turned away from the road for too long.
Source: General Motors
Prior to the hearing, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents automotive suppliers and manufacturers who produce nearly 99% of new cars and light trucks sold in the US, published several safety principles related to driver monitoring in vehicles with driver assistance systems such as Tesla Autopilot.
Among other things, the guidelines call on car manufacturers to introduce camera-based driver monitoring systems for vehicles with automated driving or driver assistance systems. These are intended to recognize whether the drivers are attentive and ready to drive manually in situations in which the automated program is insufficient.
General Motors, Subaru, and BMW already have camera-based driver monitoring systems, and others like Ford Motor have announced similar plans. Tesla vehicles have cabin cameras, but according to the company’s operating instructions, they are not used for driver monitoring. With Tesla’s systems, the driver has to “check in” by touching the steering wheel.
“This issue that we are now debating – and I agree with you – is a consumer awareness and confidence issue. That is why we have set out these driver monitoring principles today,” Bozzella said during the hearing, without any company or specific company To mention system. “Driver monitoring is an important element in this.”
Last week consumer reports found that a 2020 Tesla Model Y “can easily get the car to drive even if no one is in the driver’s seat.”
The test included upgrading the Tesla steering wheel to bypass the vehicle’s safety features that otherwise might have disabled the autopilot. The test followed a fatal spring 2019 Model S crash in Texas in April that sparked two federal investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
After a preliminary investigation, a Harris County police officer named Mark Herman told television that his investigators were “sure” that no one was in the driver’s seat of the Tesla at the time of the crash.
Extensive investigations have not been completed, and authorities have not disclosed whether the autopilot or Tesla’s premium automatic driving system FSD was in use before or at the time of the collision. Tesla advises in its owner’s manual that the autopilot and FSD require active monitoring.
The remains of a Tesla vehicle can be seen in this still from a video captured via social media after the crash in The Woodlands, Texas on April 17, 2021. Video recorded on April 17, 2021.
Scott J. Engle | via Reuters
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, said in a tweet earlier this month, “Data logs recovered so far show that autopilot was not activated and this car did not purchase an FSD. Also, the standard autopilot would require turning on lane lines that this road does not would have. “”
In a first quarter earnings call on Monday, Musk said journalists should be “ashamed” of their coverage of the crash. Tesla’s vice president of automotive technology, Lars Moravy, also shared additional details Tesla learned from helping with the local and state investigation to date.
Among other things, Moravy said that in the spring incident in Texas, “Autosteer couldn’t and couldn’t get into the road condition as it was designed.” He added that the car “only accelerated to 30 mph” before hitting a tree, and that a steering wheel deformity indicated to Tesla a “likelihood that someone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the accident”.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, unveils a new all-wheel drive version of the Model S on October 9, 2014 in Hawthorne, California.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters
During Tuesday’s government hearing, Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. Criticized Tesla and Musk for speaking about the crash while the federal investigation was ongoing.
“I was very disappointed that Tesla took to Twitter through its CEO to downplay the involvement of the company’s advanced driver assistance system before both the NTSB and NTHSA completed their ongoing investigations into the fatal accident,” he said.
The NTSB emailed CNBC, “Our investigation is ongoing and we are focused on the operation of the vehicle and the post-accident fire.”
The NHTSA and Spring, Texas police were not immediately available for comment.
Blumenthal said he agrees with some auto lobbyists that federal safety standards and new regulations are required.
He said, “Tesla’s crash shows that there are many unanswered questions about the technology that is supposed to be automated. Unfortunately, there are no current regulations that give the public much convenience that more automation is the answer without much improved consumer protection.”