Feds Taking Closer Look At Autonomous Driving As NTSB Opens Tesla Probe

Until now, investigations into the safety of Tesla’s Autopilot system have been handled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Board. But following the first fatality involving a Tesla operating in Autopilot mode, the National Transportation Safety Board — which has jurisdiction over all forms of transportation, not just automobiles — has decided to look into not only that crash but self driving technology in general.

Tesla autonomous driving system

“It’s very significant,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety advocacy group in Washington. “The NTSB only investigates crashes with broader implications.” The NTSB opens highway investigations about 25 to 30 times a year, according to O’Neil. By comparison, it is required by law to investigate the more than 1,000 aviation accidents a year.

Broader implications? That sounds ominous. The NTSB has warned in the past that such technology can cause drivers to become complacent behind the wheel, leading to dangerous situations for themselves and others drivers on the road. The Board will be sending a team of five investigators to Florida next week, agency spokesman Christopher O’Neil said Friday. “It’s worth taking a look and seeing what we can learn from that event, so that as that automation is more widely introduced we can do it in the safest way possible,” O’Neil said.


Ditlow says that the NTSB rarely opens investigations into highway accidents, so the announcement that it was looking at the Tesla crash is significant.”They’re not looking at just this crash,” he said. “They’re looking at the broader aspects. Are these driverless vehicles safe? Are there enough regulations in place to ensure their safety?” Ditlow then got to the meat of it. “And one thing in this crash I’m certain they’re going to look at is using the American public as test drivers for beta systems in vehicles. That is simply unheard of in auto safety,” he said.

Tesla consistently defends its technology, saying that it has already proven to be safer than a human driver. “Autopilot is by far the most advanced driver-assistance system on the road, but it does not turn a Tesla into an autonomous vehicle and does not allow the driver to abdicate responsibility,” the company says. “Since the release of Autopilot, we’ve continuously educated customers on the use of the feature, reminding them that they’re responsible for remaining alert and present when using Autopilot and must be prepared to take control at all times.”

The issue comes down to this. Tesla would be free to test autonomous technology in beta mode on roads populated exclusively with other Tesla drivers, all of whom agree to the terms of the beat test. But is it entitled to do so on public roads with other drivers who not only do not consent to be part of beta testing but are blissfully unaware that such a test is going on around them?

The NTSB investigation could lead to restrictions on such public testing, which would be a blow to Tesla. One of the most extraordinary features of its Autopilot system is that it interconnects all of the more than 70,000 Autopilot enabled Teslas worldwide. The data from each is shared with all the others, allowing Tesla to create the most massive self driving database in history. Tesla has recently offered to share that information with other companies.

Worldwide, more than 300,000 people lose their lives in highway accidents every year. Autonomous driving technology could save a significant number of those fatalities. Is the loss of one life in Florida reason enough to delay the implementation of systems that could save 100,000 or more deaths around the world every year? Clearly, whatever recommendations the NTSB makes could have an enormous impact on the future of autonomous driving not only in the US but in every country around the globe. They will be under enormous pressure to get this one right.

Source and photo credit: Automotive News

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.