Regulators, Mount Up: NTSB Presses NHTSA for Better Self-driving Safety

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

While the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) job isn’t to establish new regulations, it is obligated to enforce the country’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards while conducting crash investigations and making recommendations to other agencies on ways to improve vehicular safety.

Lately, that job involves telling the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an agency that does write those rules, to step up its game on autonomous vehicles.

Last week, the NTSB held a board meeting in Washington D.C. to determine the probable cause of a fatal collision between a self-driving Uber prototype and a pedestrian in March of 2018. While Uber took plenty of heat, the NHTSA also came under fire for prioritizing the advancement of advanced driving technologies over public safety.

The NTSB had been pretty hard on Uber already, so the only surprise was how much blame the group also placed upon the NHTSA. Initially, that stemmed from the ride-hailing giant’s reporting process. The Department of Transportation only requires companies that publicly test autonomous systems to submit voluntary reports — which is like to allowing children to grade their own homework.

The National Transportation Safety Board suggested that the NHTSA stop allowing business to self-assess their own safety, calling the practice “inadequate,” and implement a new reporting system that could more effectively help regulatory agencies assess how well AVs are actually doing. A recent report from Automotive News has additional context and direct quotes from NTSB staff. But the song remains the same; manufacturers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration both need to do a better job.

From Automotive News:

Through three iterations of its federal automated-vehicle policy, crafted across Democratic and Republican administrations over four years, NHTSA has issued voluntary guidance, not regulations.

It has suggested to manufacturers that they submit voluntary safety self-assessments, but as NHTSA has emphasized, automakers are under no obligation to do so. So far, 16 manufacturers have provided self-assessments. The quality and depth has varied.

“Some have a good amount of detail while others, frankly, read like marketing brochures,” said Ensar Becic, an NTSB human performance investigator.

We held similar opinions and fears when the DOT/NHTSA issued its “Vision 2.0” guidance proclamation, but it was NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy that echoed our concerns best.

“[The NHTSA has] put technology advancement here before saving lives,” she said. “It’s called ‘Automated Driving Systems: A Vision For Safety.’ They should rename it ‘A Vision For Lax Safety.’ This is actually laughable.”

The theory was that, by not hamstringing manufacturers with unnecessary regulation of a technology most lawmakers don’t understand, startups and automakers could accelerate its development. Yet autonomous driving doesn’t appear to be progressing as quickly as anticipated. Meanwhile, broadly reported crashes are making the public lose faith in the technology. Ditto for other safety agencies.

“The federal government is actively encouraging a corporate laboratory experience where real people are unknowingly being used as crash-test dummies,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “[The NHTSA] has done nothing to provide AV safety oversight in the 18 months since Elaine Herzberg’s death … If not now, when?”

The NTSB isn’t even patting itself on the back for pointing these things out, claiming they should be obvious to all regulators.

“We feel like they’re the low-hanging fruit,” Kris Poland, deputy director of the NTSB Office of Highway Safety, said last week. The group intends to keep pushing for firmer guidelines regarding autonomous testing and reporting procedures. The NHTSA claims it welcomes any reports the NTSB puts together and will carefully review the accompanying recommendations.

[Image: Ford Motor Company]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • ED I don't know what GM is thinking.I have a 2020 one nice vehicle.Got rid of Camaro and was going to buy one.Probably won't buy another GM product.Get rid of all the head honchos at GM.This company is a bunch of cheapskates building junk that no one wants.
  • Lostjr Sedans have been made less practical, with low rooflines and steeply raked A pillars. It makes them harder to get in and out of. Probably harder to put a kid in a child seat. Sedans used to be more family oriented.
  • Bob Funny how Oldsmobile was offering a GPS system to help if you were lost, yet GM as a company was very lost. Not really sure that they are not still lost. They make hideous looking trucks, Cadillac is a crappy Chevy pretending to be fancy. To be honest, I would never step in a GM show room now or ever. Boring, cheap ugly and bad resale why bother. I get enough of GM when i rent on trips from airports. I have to say, does anybody at GM ever drive what everyone else drives? Do they ever then look at what crap they put out in style fit and finish? Come on, for real, do they? Cadillac updated slogan should be " sub standard of the 3rd world", or " almost as good as Tata motors". Enough said.
  • Sam Jacobs I want a sedan. When a buy a car or even rent one, I don’t want to ride up high. I don’t want a 5-door. I want a trunk to keep my stuff out of sight. It’s quieter, cars handle better, I don’t need to be at the same height as a truck. I have a 2022 Subaru Legacy Touring XT, best car ever, equipped as a luxury sedan, so quick and quiet. I don’t understand automakers’ decisions to take away sedans or simply stop updating them — giving up the competition. The Camry and Accord should not be our only choices. Impala and Fusion were beautiful when they were axed.
  • Spamvw I think you need to remember WHY the big 2 and 1/2 got out of the car business. Without going political, the CAFE standards signed into law meant unless you had a higher gas mileage fleet, you couldn't meet the standards.The Irony is that, the law made sedans so small with low roof lines, that normal people migrated to SUV's and Trucks. Now we get worse mileage than before.