DETROIT — The government will soon release data on collisions with vehicles with autonomous or partially automated driving systems that are likely to set Tesla apart for a disproportionately high rate of such accidents.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans to release figures that it has been collecting for nearly a year in the coming days. The agency said in a separate report last week that it had documented more than 200 crashes involving Teslas using Autopilot, “Full Self-Driving”, Traffic-Aware Cruise Control, or other of the company’s partially automated systems.
Tesla’s figure and accident rate per 1,000 vehicles were significantly higher than the corresponding figures for other automakers who provided such data to The Associated Press before the NHTSA’s publication. The number of Tesla collisions was revealed as part of an NHTSA investigation into Teslas on Autopilot that had crashed in an emergency, and other vehicles stopped along roads.
Tesla has more vehicles with partially automated systems on U.S. roads than most other automakers — about 830,000, dating from the 2014 model year. And it collects real-time vehicle data online, so it has a much faster reporting system. On the other hand, other automakers have to wait for reports from the field and sometimes learn nothing about crashes for months.
In a June 2021 order, the NHTSA instructed more than 100 automakers and automated vehicle technology companies to report major accidents within one day of learning about them and to disclose minor accidents by the 15th of the following month. The agency assesses how the systems perform, whether they threaten public safety, and whether new regulations may be needed.
General Motors reported three crashes while its “Super Cruise” or other partially automated systems were in use. The company said it has sold more than 34,000 vehicles with Super Cruise since its debut in 2017.
Nissan, with more than 560,000 vehicles on the road using its “ProPilot Assist”, had no accidents to report, the company said.
Stellantis, formerly Fiat Chrysler, reported two crashes involving its systems. Ford reported zero for its “Blue Cruise” driver assistance system that hit the market in the spring, though Ford wouldn’t say if there were any crashes with less capable systems.
GM said the three crashes were not Super Cruise’s fault. A spokesman said it also reported two crashes before the June 2021 order.
Several automakers and tech companies, including Toyota and Honda, declined to release their numbers before the NHTSA data was revealed.
A message requesting comment from Tesla has been left, which has dissolved its media relations department. NHTSA would not comment on the data Tuesday.
Raj Rajkumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University who studies automated vehicles, said he wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that Tesla has had many crashes involving its driver assistance systems. Based in Austin, Texas, Tesla has stopped using radar in its design and instead relies solely on cameras and computers — a system Rajkumar calls “inherently unsafe.”
The system’s computer, he said, can only recognize what’s in memory. Rajkumar said that flashing lights on an emergency vehicle can mess up the system, as can anything the computer hasn’t seen before.
“Emergency vehicles can look very different from all the data that the Tesla software was trained on,” he said.
In addition to the publicly released crash data, the NHTSA has sent investigation teams into many more incidents where Tesla uses electronic systems than other automakers. As part of a larger accident investigation involving advanced driver assistance systems, the agency has sent teams to 34 accidents since 2016 where the plans were believed to have been in use. Of the 34 crashes, 28 Teslas were involved, according to an NHTSA document.
Vehicles or insufficient data to properly estimate the accidents. NHTSA said in documents it has received 191 reports of crashes involving Teslas on Autopilot and non-emergency vehicles, plus 16 more involving parked emergency services or cars with warning lights, for a total of 207. Of the 191, the agency removed 85 because of actions by others. That left 106 that were included in the Autopilot study.
It was unclear whether 207 matched the total number of Tesla crashes reported to the NHTSA on behalf of the NHTSA. An NHTSA spokeswoman declined to comment.
The agency instructed automakers and technology companies to report accidents involving driver assistance systems and fully autonomous driving systems.
In defending its partially automated systems, Tesla has said that Autopilot and “Full Self-Driving” cannot drive themselves, and drivers must be ready to intervene at all times. The systems can keep cars in their lane and away from other vehicles and objects. But in documents released last week, the NHTSA raised questions about whether human drivers can intervene quickly enough to prevent accidents.
Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” is designed to independently complete a route with human supervision, with the ultimate goal of self-driving and operating a fleet of autonomous robo-taxis. In 2019, Musk promised to run the robot-taxis by 2020.
Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assist system detects hands on the wheel to ensure drivers are paying attention. But that is not enough, Rajkumar said. By contrast, he noted that techniques like GMs monitoring a driver’s eyes with a camera to ensure they’re looking ahead.