Automakers Now Required to Report Automation-Related Crashes

The new reporting rule from safety regulators comes after a spate of crashes involving automated driver assistance features, such as Tesla's Autopilot

2017 Cadillac Super Cruise Photo: John Powers/Consumer Reports

After a string of high-profile crashes involving advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), such as Tesla’s Autopilot, federal regulators are now ordering manufacturers to report any crash that happens while a vehicle is automating some driving tasks and an injury or property damage is reported.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s order, released this morning, applies to all vehicles that can partially automate functions, such as steering, acceleration, or braking. Although no truly self-driving cars are currently commercially available, the order also will apply to them once they go on sale.

As more mainstream vehicles gain some form of partial automation, safety advocates say NHTSA has done little so far to determine whether they make roads safer, or might represent a danger. That’s because there is little data on ADAS’ effect on crashes, says Kelly Funkhouser, head of advanced vehicle technology testing at CR’s auto test center. While independent data show that some systems, such as automatic emergency braking (AEB) and blind spot warning (BSW), can reduce crashes, Funkhouser says there is currently inadequate safety data for other features, such as adaptive cruise control (ACC) or lane keeping assistance (LKA). “With this new data from NHTSA, we will finally have some insight into the efficacy of these systems in the real world,” she says.

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The information NHTSA collects will be added to a publicly available database, which will likely be used to inform future regulatory policy. “Data drives everything we do, and we base all our decisions on facts, research, and thorough analysis,” NHTSA acting administrator Steven Cliff told reporters during a Tuesday press conference. Until now, however, the agency has not yet had a database specifically devoted to crashes involving these rapidly proliferating technologies.

So far, NHTSA’s Special Crash Investigations (SCI) team has been responsible for looking into serious crashes involving ADAS. As of May 2021, the agency told CR it has launched 34 SCI investigations into crashes where some form of vehicle automation was in use—28 involving Tesla vehicles. The new database will include any crash on a public road where at least some driving functions were automated. According to the order, crashes involving a hospital-treated injury, a fatality, a vehicle tow-away, an air bag deployment, or a vulnerable road user, such as a pedestrian or bicyclist, must be reported within 24 hours of the automaker learning about the crash through an electronic data recorder, video, a police report, a consumer complaint, or some other method. Automakers and equipment suppliers (including software suppliers) who do not report a crash or provide requested information could face civil penalties.

“For years, safety advocates have been saying that it’s crucial for NHTSA to have better crash data to protect people effectively,” says William Wallace, manager of safety policy at CR. “While these emerging ADAS systems have enormous potential to make our roads safer and improve mobility in the long term, there really wouldn’t be any way for NHTSA to make sure they are developed and rolled out safely without having robust data about the crashes that are happening today.” 

NHTSA also indicates that it will pay special attention to whether the designs of some of these systems encourage drivers to practice unsafe behavior that leads to a crash. “When NHTSA evaluates these crash reports, we will be looking closely at the issue of foreseeable misuse,” NHTSA chief counsel Ann Carlson told reporters. She also said that the agency will examine non-crash events.

Fire Truck Tesla Crash
A 2018 Tesla crash in Utah in which Autopilot was active.

Photo: South Jordan, Utah, Police Department Photo: South Jordan, Utah, Police Department

According to the agency, these reports may also lead to SCI investigations and/or recall campaigns.  Wallace says the order may be the first step towards NHTSA’s formulation of rules around ADAS systems or incorporating new elements into its well-known five-star safety ratings. “We ultimately want to see strong mandatory performance standards for these systems,” he says.

In 2020, the National Transportation Safety Board—which investigates all aviation and many other significant transportation crashes and other incidents—called NHTSA’s overall approach to autonomous vehicle oversight misguided, because it waits for problems to happen rather than proactively implementing policies to prevent them.

“With the new data on hand, NHTSA will be able to much more readily track safety trends, identify risks, and develop smart, strong performance standards,” says Wallace.

In a statement, the Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy organization that has petitioned NHTSA for stricter ADAS data collection, predicted the order would lead to better enforcement of existing safety laws. “Collecting crash data, and hopefully data from crashes which were avoided, can help serve a variety of purposes from enforcing current laws, to ensuring the safety of consumers, to paving the way for reasonable regulations to encourage the deployment of safe advanced vehicle technology," a spokesperson for the agency wrote.

Although Tesla’s Autopilot might be the best-known active driving assistance system, nearly all automakers offer systems that would be covered by the new order. CR has tested 17 similar systems including Audi Driver Assistance Plus, Ford Co-Pilot 360, GM Super Cruise, Hyundai Smart Sense, Subaru EyeSight, Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, and Volkswagen Driver Assistance. Check CR’s ratings of these systems.

Head shot photo of CRO Cars CIA editor Keith Barry

Keith Barry

Despite my love for quirky, old European sedans like the Renault Medallion, it's my passion to help others find a safe, reliable car that still puts a smile on their face—even if they're stuck in traffic. When I'm not behind the wheel or the keyboard, you can find me exploring a new city on foot or planning my next trip.