Federal authorities investigate Tesla’s Autopilot system. AMA opposes “beta-testing” the technology on the open road with little regulatory oversight.
November 16, 2021
By Kali Kotoski
Automotive manufacturers have been charging ahead with autonomous vehicle (AV) technology and active driver assist systems of late, as Twitter-savvy tech CEOs make grand pronouncements to consumers and shareholders that cars with self-driving features are not just an unavoidable eventuality, but safer than regular vehicles and will lower accidents and fatalities on the road.
But with headlines popping up on a near weekly basis of crashes involving cars utilizing some form of AV technology, there are legitimate concerns regarding a) the seriousness of federal oversight and b) if the technology is advanced enough to be safely used in real-world driving scenarios.
The American Motorcyclist Association has raised the alarm about AV technology for years, criticizing federal authorities for lack of regulation and urging them to impose a regulatory framework for the technology’s application and development. The AMA also emphasizes the necessity of including motorcycles in manufacturers’ testing and data-gathering methods.
Additionally, the AMA cautions against beta testing the many forms of AV technology currently being deployed on America’s roads despite a lack of safety data or regulation. The AMA is hardly alone with these concerns, as insurance companies and safety advocates call for greater federal oversight.
“After more than four years since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published its first federal automated vehicle policy, we are disappointed the agency has yet to propose any specific guidance or regulation that would establish even the fundamental goals for Automated Driver System (ADS) Safety,” wrote AMA Government Relations Manager Tiffany Cipoletti in a February comment to NHTSA. “NHTSA promotes the notion that ADS technology for human drivers will lead to fewer injuries and deaths from motor vehicle crashes. […] We urge NHTSA to develop specific proposals to ensure that ADS fulfills its safety promise and to ensure that motorcyclists and all other road users benefit from being correctly detected and responded to in all traffic conditions.”
Now, it appears that the federal government is taking some action, even if it is long overdue and unfortunately stems directly from crashes and injuries.
In August, NHTSA announced that it has opened a formal investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot system used in hundreds of thousands of the company’s electric vehicles — although Tesla is not alone in the development of this technology as other American manufacturers race to catch up.
The NHTSA investigation was precipitated by at least 11 accidents involving Teslas that struck parked fire trucks, police cars and other emergency vehicles, killing one woman and injuring 17, the agency said in its announcement. The Autopilot system, deemed an assisted-driving system, can steer, accelerate and brake on its own, with crashes involved occurring in scenes where first responders used flashing lights, flares, an illuminated arrow board or cones warning of hazards.
The investigation covers 765,000 Tesla vehicles — almost everything Tesla has sold in the U.S. from the start of the 2014 model year until now.
In September, NHTSA stepped up the pressure and ordered Tesla to hand over data on its Autopilot system, aiming to gather information on whether Tesla has been involved with any arbitration proceedings or lawsuits involving the Autopilot system, as well as any customer complaints about the Tesla system. At the core of the investigation is whether Tesla has taken the needed steps to ensure that drivers are paying attention to the road and are alert enough to make emergency maneuvers.
Tesla has often contended that its technology is safe and effective, but has admitted that drivers use Autopilot as if it enables full autotomy instead of being something meant to assist drivers. Crashes and police stops of Tesla vehicles have shown that some drivers using Autopilot were watching movies, over the legal alcohol limit to drive, and in one notable San Francisco incident, the driver crawled into the back seat to nap as the vehicle crossed the Bay Bridge.
Government scrutiny of AV technology is not new, but the investigation marks the most severe effort by federal authorities into safety concerns to date, and serves as a sharp departure from the government’s arguably hands-off approach since the first Tesla Autopilot-related fatality was recorded in 2016 when a former Navy SEAL was killed in Florida when his Tesla struck a truck.
Since that 2016 crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has investigated some AV- and Tesla-related crashes. The agency has called on NHTSA to enforce its safety recommendations that include requiring Tesla to have a better system to ensure drivers are paying attention and that the system can only be used in areas it is deemed safe to operate. The NTSB lacks enforcement powers, however, and the NHTSA has declined to act on any of the recommendations.
“It is astounding that, despite clear and sensible safety recommendations and countless concerns raised by a large variety of stakeholders calling for regulations on this technology, it has taken a slew of recent accidents involving first responders to finally prompt NHTSA to look at the severity of the issue,” said AMA President and CEO Rob Dingman.
“The AMA and its Board believe that this technology can bring a greater measure of safety to motorcyclists and drivers, but we remain greatly concerned that the rush to market of driver-assist systems, semi-autonomous vehicles and highly-automated vehicles poses a significant threat to motorcyclists when the developers of this technology and the vehicle manufacturers are not held to the highest safety standards throughout the entire development and implementation process,” Dingman added.
John Lenkeit, a Technical Director at Dynamic Research, Inc., a California company that tests highly-automated vehicles and active driver assist safety systems, and which has secured NHTSA testing contracts, said that while the automotive and tech industry has largely excluded motorcycles from its testing data, there are signs that advocacy is beginning to change the calculus.
“We are finally starting to see a concerted push to get motorcycles factored into the equation,” Lenkeit said, “and likely in the next five years it could be a standard part of testing procedures. What we have been seeing is that while there is strong data indicating that some of these systems make it safer for car-to-car traffic scenarios, the absence of motorcycle-related data presents a pretty scary situation on whether the technology can actually and successfully identify motorcycles on the road and incorporate them into their crash avoidance programs.”
Lenkeit cautions that drivers need to remain vigilant and fight the natural tendency to become over-reliant and overconfident with technology that may or may not live up to its promises.
To stay up to date on the latest developments in the intersection of autonomous vehicle technology and motorcyclist safety, subscribe to the AMA’s Action Alerts at americanmotorcyclist.com/subscribe-rights
This article originally appeared in the November issue of American Motorcyclist. To read the issue click HERE.