U.S. safety regulators are going to focus more on accidents associated with self-driving cars, a natural evolution for the industry as more advanced driver- assistance functions are added to vehicles.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, is the agency charged with keeping roads safe. What the move will do for investors is make autonomous-driving data more comparable between auto makers.
Consumers, and investors, might know the NHTSA best for reporting on automotive recalls, but the agency does more than that. On Tuesday, it released a standing general order for the auto industry that requires manufacturers and operators of Automated Driving Systems (ADS) and SAE Level 2 Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) equipped vehicles to report crashes to the agency.
The Society of Automotive Engineers essentially defines five levels of autonomous driving. Level 1 cars have features such as cruise control, while a level 2 system is what’s available on
(ticker: TSLA) vehicles today. Drivers still have to be focused on the road at all times.
Systems at levels, 3, 4, and 5 can completely take over in some situations, making it safe for the driver to do other things. Level 3 systems aren’t being sold on passenger cars yet.
Features that allow for some degree of autonomous driving are appearing on more and more new cars. Tesla vehicles include what the company calls Auto Pilot, but drivers can also upgrade to what it calls Full Self Driving—a level 2 system, despite the name.
Other auto makers offer similar features.
(GM) has Super Cruise.
(F) offers Blue Cruise, and Volvo sells what it calls Pilot Assist.
(BMW.Germany) calls its system Personal CoPilot.
There is little doubt that the new features make driving safer, but there is some concern over how the systems are being used. Drivers need to be engaged at all times with current offerings.
The new NHTSA order will that all the data needed to assess what is going on is being collected. More data will help consumers, and investors, learn just how much the safety features help, as well as to compare systems from different auto makers.
Right now, Tesla is one of the only auto makers reporting safety data every quarter. In the first quarter of 2021, for instance, Tesla reported one accident for every 4.19 million miles driven with Auto Pilot engaged. Tesla compares that to the NHTSA statistic showing there is one accident for every 484,000 miles driven.
That isn’t an apples to apples comparison, though. Today’s pilot-assistance features, including Auto Pilot, work best in ideal driving conditions, with dry roads and well-marked lanes, so drivers may not use them when the going is bad. Tesla’s reports, while impressive, don’t give a lot of details about the conditions under which its systems were used.
The standing order also might show whether crashes associated with advanced safety systems are currently being underreported. NHTSA has always had regular communication with vehicle and equipment manufacturers, said a spokesman in an emailed statement. Manufactures are required to report some crashes, but there was no comprehensive mechanism to ensure regular reporting on cars with advanced safety systems.
This order sets a standard for what accidents must be reported. Vehicles’ advance safety systems must have been on within 30 seconds of the crash, and the accident must result in an injury, fatality, or property damage.
This order will…give NHTSA additional data on crashes involving ADS and ADAS equipped vehicles. Steve Cliff, NHTSA administrator, said in a video announcing the order. In fact, gathering data might help instill confidence.
Tesla is the auto maker with the most to gain, or lose, from new safety data. CEO Elon Musk has promised higher-functioning versions of its full self-driving software by year-end. Tesla is also planning to roll out a subscription model for the system.
Wall Street’s calls regarding what full self-driving software could be worth to the company range from $100 billion to $300 billion in value of Tesla shares. That is significant, given that the company’s market capitalization was about $656 billion on Wednesday afternoon.
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