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NHTSA Releases New Data About Autonomous Vehicle Crashes

Newly released data related to when cars with autonomous technology and advanced driver assistance systems are in car crashes has elected officials calling for more oversight to ensure improved highway safety.

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Vehicles with driver assistance systems and autonomous technologies have been involved in hundreds of crashes in the last year.

Newly released data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) details when crashes occurred in vehicles equipped with Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), the driver assistance features found on many cars, and Automated Driving Systems (ADS), which refer to autonomous technologies being tested — and in some cases deployed — on public streets and roadways.

Vehicles with ADAS have been involved in 392 crashes in the last year, according to the federal highway safety agency. Six of those were fatal, five resulted in serious injuries, with 41 resulting in minor or moderate injuries. Four involved a “vulnerable road-user,” such as a cyclist or pedestrian.

Cars with autonomous driving systems were involved in 130 crashes, with 16 of those resulting in injuries and 11 involving vulnerable road-users.

“What’s been released today has certainly been cause for deep alarm. It is ringing an alarm bell affirming many of the warnings that we’ve made over the years,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., during a press conference Wednesday. The press conference was called by the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

“The frequency and severity of these crashes is cause for yellow lights flashing, and maybe red lights flashing on these technologies,” Blumenthal added.

Blumenthal, along with Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., plan to send a letter to NHTSA urging the agency to take stronger regulatory steps at making vehicles safer, and holding car companies accountable when systems do not operate as intended and result in injuries.

"We’re going to be asking NHTSA to take additional steps in order to protect safety,” Markey told reporters.

“We want clear regulations. We want clear rules of the road,” said Blumenthal. “This letter is a first step toward demanding more proactive intervention by NHTSA.”

The elected officials seemed to focus their strongest ire toward Tesla, the maker of electric vehicles, which include an autopilot feature. The cars with this feature have been involved in 273 crashes in the last year, according to NHTSA — making up 70 percent of the reported crashes — the most of any car company.

“Today’s release is not an isolated piece of evidence. Rather, it is yet another signal that Tesla is running regulatory red lights and failing to take common-sense safety measures to protect the public,” said Markey.

“Tesla has argued that autopilot makes us safer, but this report provides further evidence slamming the brakes on those claims by Tesla,” he added.

Tesla officials did not respond to a request to comment on the data.

When it comes to crashes involving cars with autonomous technology, Waymo reported the most with 62.

The data seems especially prescient, given the recent report released by NHTSA showing 42,915 traffic-related fatalities in 2021, up 10.5 percent from 2020, and the highest number since 2005.

Meanwhile, the companies behind the autonomous technology often tout the potential for improving highway safety.

“The safety’s got to be, literally, the driver. It’s the imperative here,” Mark Rosekind, chief safety innovation officer for AV technology company Zoox, told Government Technology in April, as he stressed the central concern among the officials at the company.

Zoox was involved in 12 crashes in the last year. Zoox was not available for comment Wednesday, and deferred to a statement released by the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association (AVIA).

“The Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association’s members are committed to realizing the transformational opportunity for autonomous vehicles (AVs) to improve safety on America’s roads,” said AVIA general counsel Ariel Wolf in a statement. “The data released by NHTSA confirms the strong safety record of AV technology and its testing and deployment procedures, and we appreciate that this report clearly delineates between AVs and driver-assist as distinct technologies.”

Officials for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety stopped just short of saying autonomous ride-hailing operations in San Francisco and other locations should be halted, but added that more testing is needed.

“We support testing, with safeguards, and we especially support testing in private settings,” said Cathy Chase, president for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.