The federal government released two new reports highlighting — for the first time — crashes and fatalities involving autonomous vehicles (AV) and vehicles equipped with advanced driver-assist systems (ADAS). Tesla reported the most crashes involving driver-assist technology, while Alphabet’s Waymo disclosed the most incidents involving its autonomous vehicles.
Car and tech companies insist these technologies save lives, but more people died in auto crashes last year than in the last three decades. More data is needed to accurately determine whether these new systems are making roads safer, or simply making driving more convenient.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a standing general order last year requiring car companies to report crashes involving AVs as well as Level 2 driver-assist systems found in hundreds of thousands of vehicles on the road today.
At Level 2, the vehicle can control steering and acceleration and deceleration, but it falls short of full autonomy because a human sits in the driver’s seat and can take control of the car at any time. Levels 3–5 refer to autonomous vehicles that control all the driving under specific conditions or, in the case of Level 5, under any conditions. (Notably, there are no Level 5 vehicles in existence today.) More than 100 companies were subject to the new reporting requirements, including Tesla, Ford, and GM as well as AV operators like Waymo and Cruise.
To be sure, the data is limited, lacking key details like the number of vehicles manufactured, the number of vehicles in operation, and the distances traveled by those vehicles. Companies may rely on different criteria when reporting incidents. For example, some automakers receive crash reports through vehicle telematics, while other companies must rely on unverified customer claims.
Officials cautioned against drawing conclusions based only on the numbers contained in the reports. The NHTSA expects to release new crash data every month in an effort to bring more transparency to what has previously been an opaque technology.
“We launched this effort because we want, we expect, actually, we need safety to be built at every stage of a vehicle’s development,” Steven Cliff, chief administrator at NHTSA, said during a briefing with reporters. “Driver-assistance technologies and automation are no exception.”
Tesla’s numbers were much higher than other companies, most likely due to the fact that it sells more vehicles equipped with Level 2 systems than its rivals. (One estimate puts the number of Tesla vehicles with Autopilot or “Full Self-Driving” at 825,970.) Tesla collects real-time telematics data from its customers, giving it a much faster reporting process. Other automakers typically have to wait for reports to arrive from the field and sometimes don’t receive them for months.
From July 20th, 2021, to May 21st, 2022, there were 273 crashes involving Tesla vehicles using Autopilot, according to the report. The EV company’s crashes represent the bulk of the total 392 crashes reported during that period.
Other automakers didn’t come close to Tesla’s number of reported crashes. Honda, which sells its ADAS features under the brand “Honda Sensing,” disclosed 90 crashes. Subaru, which packages its ADAS under “EyeSight,” reported 10 crashes. Ford disclosed five crashes, Toyota reported four crashes, BMW reported three crashes, and General Motors, maker of Super Cruise, only disclosed two crashes. Aptiv, Hyundai, Lucid, Porsche, and Volkswagen each reported one crash.
Of the 392 crash reports, only 98 included information about severity. There were six crashes that resulted in serious injuries and five that resulted in fatalities during the nine-month reporting period. NHTSA officials did not disclose the manufacturers that reported the fatalities but said that information would be included in the raw data released Wednesday.
Throughout the briefing, officials declined to address specific questions about Tesla, cautioning against drawing conclusions about any one company. But there’s no question that Tesla is an outlier when it comes to driver-assist technology.
Since the company introduced Autopilot in 2015, there have been at least 11 deaths in nine crashes in the US that involved the driver-assistance system. Internationally, there have been at least another nine deaths in seven additional crashes. The NHTSA is currently investigating nearly three dozen incidents in the US involving Tesla Autopilot. And last week, the agency upgraded its probe into a dozen crashes involving stationary emergency vehicles, bringing Tesla one step closer to a possible recall.
Tesla, for its part, claims that Autopilot is safer than human driving. The company releases a “safety report” every three months that shows the number of miles between crashes when drivers use Autopilot and the number of miles between crashes when they do not. But Tesla neglects to include crucial information in its reports, such as where most of the driving takes place and how it compares based on different driving environments. Other companies do not release safety stats involving their Level 2 systems at all.
The NHTSA also reported the types of collisions involving Level 2-equipped vehicles. Of the 392 crashes, 119 of them involved another vehicle. Four crashes involved “vulnerable road users,” three of which were pedestrians and the remaining one a cyclist.
And, unsurprisingly, most of the ADAS crashes (125) took place in California, which also happens to be the state with the most registered Tesla vehicles.
The NHTSA received reports of 130 crashes involving vehicles equipped with automated driving systems (ADS) from July 2021 to May 2022. These are test vehicles or vehicles that are part of an AV fleet owned by an operator — not vehicles that are for sale to the public.
Waymo, which is a subsidiary of Alphabet, reported 62 crashes. Transdev Alternative Services, which operates self-driving shuttles, disclosed 34 crashes. And Cruise, a majority owned subsidiary of GM, reported 23 crashes.
Again, this reflects the reality of the AV testing world, which is currently dominated by Waymo and Cruise. Together, the two companies account for most of the miles driven in California, which serves as ground zero for most AV testing in the US. Waymo said it drove 2.3 million miles in 2021, while Cruise reported driving 876,104 miles.
These facts, of course, go unmentioned in the NHTSA reports, which lack a lot of contextualizing information. The agency says the primary reason for the standing order was to obtain a new dataset to allow it to respond to real-time performance. Officials noted that one recall has already been issued as a result of the standing order. Earlier this year, AV operator Pony.ai agreed to issue a recall for some versions of its software after a crash in California. The company also had its testing license revoked by authorities in California.
Waymo claims to have a better safety record than most AV companies, but the company has still been involved in a number of incidents. The company published 6.1 million miles of driving data in Arizona in 2019 and 2020, including 18 crashes and 29 near-miss collisions. In those incidents where its safety operators took control of the vehicle to avoid a crash, Waymo’s engineers simulated what would have happened had the driver not disengaged the vehicle’s self-driving system to generate a counterfactual. The company has also made some of its data available to academic researchers.
The NHTSA says 25 companies that operate ADS-equipped vehicles reported 130 crashes over the nine-month period. Of those crashes, only one reported serious injuries. There were no fatalities.
The NHTSA says it will release new data every month. But automakers and AV operators are convinced the numbers will be misinterpreted by the public. To be sure, these companies have made broad claims about autonomous technology and its potential to improve driving safety and reduce crashes and fatalities — with little evidence to back it up. Meanwhile, safety advocates have pushed for new policies that would help reduce the number of cars on the road and encourage people to use safer means of transportation, like public transit, cycling, and walking.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of a mounting crisis on US roadways. More people died in auto-related crashes last year than in any year since 2005. The NHTSA estimates that 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2021, a 10.5 percent increase from the 38,824 fatalities in 2020. The deaths include pedestrians, cyclists, and others who may have died during a crash.
The rise in deaths corresponds with an increase in vehicle miles traveled. More people are driving dangerously as well, a pandemic-era trend that has continued unabated. The Biden administration says it is committed to implementing changes to enhance safety — but rarely do any officials talk about the need to reduce car dependency.
The NHTSA is trying to get its arms around the problem. Earlier this year, the agency announced a major upgrade to its five-star rating system for new vehicles, the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). For the first time, the NHTSA will consider the inclusion of ADAS features, like automatic emergency braking, blind-spot detection, and lane-keep assistance. These ADAS features, which are quickly becoming standard in most vehicles today, could become essential criteria for a five-star safety rating from the government.
It’s a tricky situation for the NHTSA, simultaneously promoting these new technologies while also publicly disclosing incidents when the vehicles equipped with these systems are involved in a crash. The NHTSA’s Steven Cliff acknowledged that it’s a fine line to walk but that the agency is committed to transparency.
“This is an unprecedented effort to gather nearly real time safety data involving these advanced technologies,” Cliff said. “Understanding the story that the data tell will take time, as most of NHTSA’s work does, but it’s a story we need to hear.”