The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released safety data on advanced driver assistance systems on Wednesday. Since June 2021, car manufacturers have been required to inform the NHTSA if any of their vehicles crash using partially automated control systems, referred to as the second level of autonomy.
As many assumed, most accidents since the beginning of the reporting period have been caused by Tesla’s Autopilot system. Tesla’s electric cars accounted for three-quarters of all events, involving 273 of the 367 accidents reported between July 2021 and May 15, 2022. In the past, Tesla claimed that Autopilot had reduced accidents by 40%.
Why did Tesla have 273 accidents and Nissan none?
At first glance, data from the first year of the National Road Safety Authority’s project, which monitors the safety of advanced driver assistance systems, looks threatening for Tesla. Its electric cars were involved in more than 70% of reported accidents using Level 2 technology. Three accidents involved serious injuries and a total of five deaths.
Far beyond Tesla was the Japanese Honda with 90 accidents and one death, while most other manufacturers reported only units of accidents. For example, Nissan did not report any accident at all. Although there are more Tesla vehicles equipped with ADAS (approximately 830,000) on the roads than vehicles from other manufacturers, Nissan is not far behind with 560,000 vehicles.
So how is such a difference in the number of accidents possible? Unlike the ProPilot system from Nissan, which can only be used on motorways, the Autopilot from Tesla can also be used on lower-class roads. Therefore, without knowing the number of kilometers traveled, it is not possible to objectively compare their relative level of safety.
A series of Tesel accidents eventually prompted NHTSA to take action. In August 2021, the office launched an investigation into 11 accidents in which cars using the Autopilot system collided with rescue vehicles. This June the investigation has been extended to a much more comprehensive technical analysis. In addition, a separate investigation is underway into the susceptibility of newer models (which lack radar) to self-braking.
The National Traffic Safety Authority has also repeatedly focused on the Autopilot system, which has even accused NHTSA of: “Does not recognize the importance of ensuring acceptable safety measures to prevent vehicles from operating outside their operating area and beyond the design capabilities of their systems”.
Under the new NHTSA order, car manufacturers (and possibly operators) must submit reporting of all accidents involving advanced level 2 driver assistance systemswhich occurred on a public road in the United States or its territories.
The data are not so clear
Car manufacturers must report all accidents if the second-level assistance system has been in operation within 30 seconds of the accident and the accident involved “Vulnerable road user or resulted in a fatal accident, towing of the vehicle, activation of the airbag or transport of any person to hospital for medical treatment”.
Adjusting the timeout is a response to concerns Tesla has programmed Autopilot to shut down if it detects an accident. Last week, the NHTSA said that during an investigation into 16 Tesla car accidents, several of them showed that the Autopilot had handed over control of the car to the driver. “Less than a second before the accident”.
The data in the latest NHTSA survey are subject to several reservations. Access to accident data varies by manufacturer and some documentation may be incomplete, the agency said. Conversely, some accidents may be reported more than once if the data came through the manufacturer, but also as a complaint.
The Authority also notes that some data has been partially redacted for reasons of personal data protection or confidential business information and that summary information from accident reports is not standardized; they are only presented as an absolute number of accidents.