US automakers have outlined principles designed to encourage drivers to pay attention to the road while driving partially automated vehicles as political scrutiny of the technology intensifies following a series of fatal crashes.
The proposals, published yesterday before a Senate subcommittee hearing on the future of automotive safety and technology, come days after two men reportedly using Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assist system were killed in a crash near Houston. Local police say no-one was in the driving seat, though Tesla disputes this. The incident is being investigated by two federal agencies.
Executives with the Alliance for Automotive Innovation and Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, which represents at least 20 automakers including General Motors, Ford and Toyota, proposed that vehicles with auto-driving systems should include driver monitoring as standard equipment.
Those systems could include cameras to make sure drivers are paying attention, and that those systems should be designed so they cannot be “disengaged or disabled”. If drivers don’t pay attention, car features should issue warnings or take corrective action such as disengaging the automated systems.
In the most recent accident, in Houston, the Tesla failed to negotiate a curve and went off the road, crashed into a tree and burst into flames. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are investigating the crash. Tesla claims the steering wheel was damaged, indicating a human was behind the wheel, and seat belts were unbuckled.
Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, wrote in a tweet earlier this month: “Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled & this car did not purchase FSD. Moreover, standard Autopilot would require lane lines to turn on, which this street did not have.”
Musk again broached the subject of the Texas crash on Monday. During an earnings-call, he said journalists should be “ashamed” of their reporting on the crash.
Tesla’s vice president of vehicle engineering, Lars Moravy, added that Tesla’s drive system “did not and could not engage on the road condition as it was designed.”
Tesla’s self-driving technology, sold under the brand names Autopilot and Full Self-Driving, have been involved in multiple crashes, including several fatalities, when neither the system nor the driver intervened.
The company has said the self-drive feature is an assistance system and drivers must be ready to intervene at all times, but many consumers appear to believe the vehicles can navigate safely without driver supervision.
Consumer Reports study published last week found that a 2020 Tesla Model Y could “easily” be made to drive “even with no one in the driver’s seat”.
In March, the US auto safety agency said it had opened 27 investigations into crashes of Tesla vehicles. The NTSB has opened eight investigations. At least three of the crashes occurred recently. Musk said in January he was “highly confident the car will be able to drive itself with reliability in excess of human this year”.
The alliance includes automakers that account for about 99% of the industry’s vehicle sales in the US. Tesla, which is not a member of the alliance, had no representation at the hearings.
The lobby group said the principles it plans to adopt were aimed at raising consumer awareness about the limitations of robotic driving systems, including the idea that self-driving technology has advanced to the point that human drivers are no longer needed.
“There is no vehicle that I know of in the US marketplace today that is a self-driving vehicle,” said the alliance’s CEO, John Bozzella. “System names and promotional material should not be misleading. Potential for driver misuse needs to be evaluated as part of the design process.”
Ann Wilson, senior vice-president of government affairs at the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, said that a lack of clear national policies on the issue meant “the US is in danger of losing our competitive edge”. She added, “NHTSA can do more and should do more.”
But the automakers’ calls for standards on the issue also came under attack. Jason Levine, executive director of the non-profit Center for Auto Safety, said “when industry talks about a voluntary standard instead of publishing and following one, which they could do at any time, it is mainly for the purpose of delaying a mandatory government standard, and little else.”
The proposals come days after three Democratic senators introduced legislation mandating performance standards for driver-monitoring systems and requiring installation of those systems in new vehicles.
Senators Ed Markey, Richard Blumenthal and Amy Klobuchar introduced measures that would require the NHTSA “to study how driver-monitoring systems can prevent driver distraction, driver disengagement, automation complacency, and the foreseeable misuse of advanced driver-assist systems”.
At the hearing, Blumenthal criticized Tesla and Musk for speaking about the crash while federal investigations are ongoing.
“I was very disappointed that Tesla through its CEO took to Twitter to downplay the involvement of the company’s advanced driver assistance system before both the NTSB and NTHSA have completed their ongoing investigation into the deadly accident,” he said.
“Tesla’s crash highlights that there are many unanswered questions regarding the technology that purports to be automated. And sadly, there are no current regulations to provide the public with a lot of comfort that more automation without significantly upgraded consumer protection is the answer.”