The new head of the government’s road safety agency says the agency will step up efforts to better understand the risks posed by automated vehicle technology so that it can determine what regulations are needed to protect drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.
Steven Cliff, who was confirmed as the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last month, said in an interview Wednesday that the agency is analyzing crash data recently reported by automakers and tech companies.
Any new regulations imposed by the NHTSA would address what critics say is an urgent need to address the growing use of driver assistance systems on American roads. The systems have been linked to fatal and serious injury crashes, but they also have enormous potential to prevent crashes. There are no federal regulations that specifically address self-driving vehicles or those with partially automated driver-assist systems like Tesla’s Autopilot.
Cliff stated that the NHTSA wants to better understand how driver-assist and autonomous technology should perform before developing any new federal standards.
Cliff gave The Associated Press his first on-the-record interview since being confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday.
He stated that when he first started at the agency in February 2021, he was surprised to learn that the NHTSA had no data on automated vehicle crashes. Cliff stated that as a result, he challenged the agency to require such reporting. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released data from July 2021 to May last month, concluding that automated vehicles were involved in nearly 400 crashes.
Cliff cautioned that, while he believes federal standards are required to regulate driver assistance technology, he does not want to rush into new rules that could jeopardize safety.
“Anytime we put a regulation on the books, we have to define not only what standard that technology needs to be held to, but we also need to have an objective way to measure the performance of the system to ensure that it actually complies with the regulation,” he said from his office at the United States Department of Transportation’s headquarters in Washington.
Cliff also stated that the agency is working on performance standards for automatic emergency braking, which it intends to mandate on all new passenger vehicles and heavy trucks. He believes that braking systems that can detect and stop for pedestrians, other vehicles, and obstacles have great potential to help reduce rising traffic deaths in the United States.
He stated that the NHTSA will establish metrics for how the braking systems detect objects in order to ensure that the systems respond appropriately.
“That’s part of any standard that we put in place,” he explained.
Cliff declined to discuss the specifics of any upcoming regulations.
“It’s critical for us to better understand the data that comes from those incidents in an engineering context,” he said. “I believe it is critical to move quickly, but not so quickly that we make mistakes.”
Tesla had more than 400 crashes reported by manufacturers than all other automakers combined. However, Cliff pointed out that Tesla has driver assistance technology in nearly all of its roughly 830,000 vehicles on U.S. roads, making neat comparisons to other automakers difficult. The company also offers near-instantaneous wireless crash reporting, so it receives data faster than other automakers.
Since Cliff’s arrival, the agency has increased its enforcement efforts against Tesla, including a push for a dozen recalls since the beginning of 2021. The agency is looking into why Teslas using Autopilot appear to collide with emergency vehicles parked along freeways. It has also received over 750 consumer complaints about Teslas breaking unexpectedly for no apparent reason.
At the same time, Cliff added, Tesla as been cooperative with NHTSA since his arrival at the agency.