While theÂ 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 theÂ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an agency thatÂ does write those rules, to step up its game on autonomous vehicles.
Last week, the NTSBÂ 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 reportsÂ â which is like to allowing children to grade their own homework.
TheÂ National Transportation Safety Board suggested that theÂ 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.Â A recent report from Automotive NewsÂ has additional context and direct quotes from NTSB staff. But the song remains the same; manufacturers and theÂ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration both need to do a better job.
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/NHTSAÂ issued its “Vision 2.0” guidance proclamation, but it was NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy that echoed our concerns best.
“[The NHTSA has]Â 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 â¦ 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.