By on September 14, 2021

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been doing a deep dive into Tesla’s Autopilot to determine if 765,000 vehicles from the 2014 model year onward are fit to be on the road. We’ve covered it on numerous occasions, with your author often making a plea for regulators not to harp on one company when the entire industry has been slinging advanced driving aids and distracting infotainment displays for years.

Apparently someone at the NHTSA either heard the blathering, or was at least of a similar mind, because the organization has expanded its investigation to include roughly a dozen other automakers.

On Monday, letters were issued to major manufacturers — reportedly including BMW, Honda, Toyota, and Ford Motor Co. — requesting a “comparative analysis amongst production vehicles equipped with the ability to control both steering and braking/accelerating simultaneously under some circumstances.”

Bloomberg was the first to learn of the regulatory notices and stated that they included comprehensive documentation on how driver-assistance features work for each company, as well as how they know when and if a system was engaged in the event of an accident. Since the Tesla probe originally started by investigating vehicle crashes in the presence of rescue and law-enforcement vehicles, the NHTSA also wants to know how various systems handle their presence. Automakers were asked by regulators to respond no later than November 17th, 2021.

This is probably something the Department of Transportation should have been looking into years earlier, rather than allowing the industry to implement features that debatably went onto the market unproven. Now we’re in a situation where driving aids have become the norm and regulators are just starting to get serious about looking into some of the resulting complications. But it’s difficult to say what’s right when regulations often have unintended consequences and rarely seem to take the larger picture into account.

It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where the NHTSA wants all manufacturers to network all vehicles with emergency responders to prevent future incidents where an automobile goes haywire near some flashing lights and road flares. While that would almost assuredly result in a technical violation of the Fourth Amendment, counties lacking such protections have already implemented traffic enforcement centers (e.g. China) that track networked vehicles in real time and individual automakers have data hubs on U.S. soil doing roughly the same thing.

But that’s just one possible scenario.

Regulators could just as easily attempt to establish a set of rules relating to how, when, and where these systems can be operated. A certification and testing protocol could also be implemented to ensure their effectiveness or automakers might be forbade from implementing certain functions entirely. Nobody but bureaucrats hold any love for red tape, and it’s bound to result costly recall campaigns. However doing nothing might leave millions of vehicles on the road with potentially hazardous safety and convenience packages and I haven’t the faintest idea whether that’s going to be the best or absolute worst solution to this problem. There are several issues here begging to be addressed (safety, privacy, a lack of standardization, increased costs, manufacturing complexities, etc.) but so many regulatory actions turn out to be counter productive that it makes one hesitant to endorse anything.

As pickles go, this one is taking up the whole damn jar — thanks partially to regulators dragging their feet and out-of-touch legislators having next to no idea how any of these systems worked. Rather than examining things seriously six or seven years ago and attempting to establish a competent regulatory framework that could be updated as new technologies cropped up, the government now has to play catchup and plot a course of action while it’s still learning how these systems function.

[Image: Virrage Images/Shutterstock]

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20 Comments on “Twist: NHTSA Tesla Autopilot Probe Now Includes Other Automakers...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “Regulators could just as easily attempt to establish a set of rules relating to how, when, and where these systems can be operated.”

    SAE Level 2 says:
    “You are driving whenever these driver support features are engaged – even if your feet are off the pedals and you are not steering.
    You must constantly supervise these features; you must steer, brake, or accelerate as needed to maintain safety.”

    The problem isn’t the mfrs; the problem is the rule itself.

    Whether the thing is called “Autopilot”, “Super Cruise”, or “Let’s Go Home Together”, it still comes down to the fact that people overtrust systems that *don’t even have to work* to be in compliance.

    • 0 avatar

      Which also kind of falls into the same realm as the new fiasco with the EPA and the RPM act. It’s easier for the government to enforce laws on the companies that provide the technology than it is to enforce those same laws on the end user who misuses them.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      I don’t agree. “Super Cruise” denotes a cruise control system. This is understood to be a system that requires driver intervention because that has always been the case with cruise control. Auto Pilot has a very different meaning…it is a system that flies an airplane for the pilot. Not really the same thing.

      You may be correct on the rule and level 2 systems themselves being not optimal, but Tesla is in a different league here with respect to misrepresentation of the system’s capabilities.

      • 0 avatar

        @Art: if it’s not the actual technology that you find issue with, its Tesla’s (mis)representation thereof, wouldn’t this investigation fall more toward the FCC than the NHTSA?

      • 0 avatar
        SCE to AUX

        Actually Art, I agree with you.

        I believe the issue isn’t with the systems malfunctioning, but with their misuse. Misuse can be directly related to the product name, leading to misplaced expectations. No doubt Super Cruise and Autopilot have different connotations.

        As for Tesla, they have never claimed Autopilot is more than a Level 2 system. In fact, even the vaporware $10,000 Full Self Driving option makes no such claim.

        I’m no lawyer, but I would guess the NHTSA’s investigation will find no technical violations of SAE Level 2, and perhaps leave it to a trade agency (SEC or FTC, I don’t know) to force Tesla’s hand on renaming their products.

        The problem I have with FSD is contractual – it’s not close to being FSD, and generations of owners have paid for a feature that does not work, and is not part of the car’s value when traded. It’s not the same as buying locking differentials but never using them, since both you and the next owner could actually do so. I think past and present owners should sue Tesla for fraud.

        • 0 avatar

          @SCE: Yeah, Tesla should really rebrand. It annoys me. TeslaCruise and TeslaCruise+ or something like that. Their Version 10 does do some interesting stuff. It made it down Lombard St. for the first time. That surprised me. You do get some enhanced features, but an actual level 5 it’s not. For level 5, they’ve already announced yet another iteration of hardware.

          Most of the general public I’ve talked with is fully aware of what it is and won’t trust even the level 2 features. I have the feeling that if someone pushed out a perfect system with capabilities far beyond any human, the general public would still not trust or use it. Just ask people and see what I mean.

          • 0 avatar

            It’s junk tech. Never mind its naming, renaming or legal, technical definitions. Just fix the cars that allow drivers to not pay attention, take a nap while said cars are in motion, etc, without much preventing them from doing so. Yes the ultra determined will find a way around any safety protocols that are put in place, suicidal tendencies and whatnot.

      • 0 avatar

        Frankly, I think GM should be sued because those Cadillacs aren’t achieving anything like Mach 1.

      • 0 avatar

        In an aircraft the autopilot is just a pilot aid. It is still required that the pilot maintain vigilance to see and avoid terrain, structures and other aircraft. The autopilot will hold heading, altitude, vertical speed, whatever, but that is it.

        FMS can (mostly) fly the plane from place to place but it is still on the pilot to see and avoid.

        • 0 avatar

          @flipper35: Exactly. Technically, Ford’s “Co-Pilot360” is a much more problematic name than autopilot. Nissan’s ProPilot is bad too. As far as public perception goes, outside of a small group, I don’t think they trust any of the driver assistance technologies. I know plenty of people that are spooked by conventional cruise control.

  • avatar

    Government regulators always want to idiot proof stuff. For a classic example, consider the interlock that makes it hard (not impossible) to reach the sharp, fast moving parts of your lawnmower while they are spinning. The regulators cannot understand that their attempts to idiot proof just lead to more perverse and determined idiots.

  • avatar

    If you sell a product that is frequently “misused” in a way that harms your customers and people with the bad luck to be near them, either your design or labeling may be negligent. That’s the level of problem the non-Tesla mfgs are dealing with. You go ahead and label it”Full Self Driving” and …. Nope. I’d rant about the “not a flame thrower” but that’s the opposite spin, and I own wasp spray and lighters ….

  • avatar

    Maybe I’m blissfully unaware but I don’t recall hearing of anyone else’s systems having problems. I’d agree part of the semantics problem is people over rely on it based on how it is named. The other systems could be brought in to figure out why Tesla is so unique with these incidents

    • 0 avatar

      Other automakers (engineers) probably know the exact issue with “Autopilot”, or multiple issues. And they may not want to say! I’m sure they’re thinking ‘screw’ Tesla. And the FTC.

  • avatar

    Honestly, there’s only one reliable solution: All vehicles need the ability to communicate with each other to signal where they are and what they’re doing. Add to this an ability to communicate directly with city traffic management computers and you could effectively eliminate the vast majority of traffic jams and incidents due to outside influences such as crashes, construction, power outages, etc.

    Give emergency vehicles a priority signal and many of these ‘roadside incidents’ would be completely eliminated.

    • 0 avatar

      @vulpine: You’re right. We have ADS-B in aviation. It would be great to have something similar in vehicles. Even expand it to cell phones, pet collars, and tags/wristbands for kids. Not a perfect system, but much better than nothing.

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