In Tesla Autopilot Investigation, Federal Regulators Ask Other Automakers for Their Data

Auto experts welcome NHTSA's data request, which could mean that the safety regulator is taking a deeper look at these driver assistance systems

Computer designed illustration of a self driving vehicle Illustration: Getty Images

As part of its defect investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot active driver assistance system, the government’s top auto safety watchdog has requested information from 12 other automakers about their similar systems—a potential sign that safety regulators are paying closer attention to features that can control a vehicle’s acceleration and steering.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent letters to BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Stellantis (the parent company of Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep, Ram, and others), Subaru, Toyota, and Volkswagen, requesting a trove of data, including information about:

  • Any crashes that took place when the vehicle was in control of steering, acceleration, and braking.
  • How each system is designed to function, including any restrictions on its use.
  • How the systems are marketed to drivers.
  • The conditions under which the systems are designed to be used.
  • Any safeguards automakers put in place to ensure that the systems are not abused or misused.

The request follows a call for similar information from Tesla, whose Autopilot system is being investigated by NHTSA after a series of crashes involving stopped emergency vehicles. Regulators are trying to determine whether Autopilot—Tesla’s suite of driver assistance features that can control some braking, acceleration, and steering functions—is a factor in those crashes, including technical failures, driver inattention, and misleading marketing about Autopilot’s capabilities.

“Tesla’s Autopilot is most well-known, but nearly every automaker offers some degree of similar functionality, at least on some of their vehicles,” says Kelly Funkhouser, head of connected and automated vehicle testing at Consumer Reports. “This request for more data indicates that NHTSA is serious about ensuring these driver assistance systems are truly serving the public and could lead to enforcement actions down the road.”

All the automakers queried by NHTSA sell vehicles with these features, including BMW Active Driving Assistance Pro, Hyundai Smart Sense, GM Super Cruise, Subaru EyeSight, and Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. CR has already performance-tested most of them.

Active safety systems such as automatic emergency braking (AEB) and blind spot warning (BSW) have been shown to prevent crashes. By comparison, features such as adaptive cruise control and lane centering—which, when combined, form the basis of Autopilot and similar features from other automakers—are primarily designed for driver convenience.

Until now, NHTSA has yet to determine whether such systems, in general, make roads safer or more dangerous. In January 2017, as part of a prior investigation into Autopilot, NHTSA released a report based on Tesla-provided data that claimed Autopilot-equipped vehicles had fewer crashes, but an independent analysis later discredited the agency’s initial finding.

Now the agency appears to be gathering enough data to compare similar systems with each other—a key step in determining how to proceed as a regulator, says Heidi King, who was acting administrator of NHTSA between September 2017 and August 2019. “The more technical information that NHTSA is able to gather related to emerging technology, the better they are able to perform their role of assuring safety on our roadways,” she told CR.

A spokesperson for NHTSA told CR that the agency does not comment on ongoing investigations, but they confirmed that the purpose of the letters was to form a comparative analysis of similar Level 2 advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).

Although Autopilot is well-known for its ability to control certain vehicle functions including steering, braking, and acceleration, it is not the only system of its type. 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.

The letters from NHTSA also show that the agency is interested in how these different systems are being marketed to consumers, and whether such marketing is encouraging the misuse or abuse of these features. Earlier this month, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate what they said were Tesla’s deceptive marketing practices surrounding Autopilot.

“Gathering data from multiple manufacturers should allow NHTSA to not only make comprehensive determinations about ADAS performance but also examine how vehicle marketing can contribute to the unsafe behaviors taking place on our roads,” says Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group.

“This request illustrates that NHTSA is becoming a more active regulatory body under the Biden administration,” says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT who is also the director of the Advanced Vehicle Technology Consortium, a research group that CR is also part of. Reimer and fellow MIT research scientist Pnina Gershon recently published a study that shows drivers using Autopilot are less likely to be looking at the road while driving. They agreed that more comparative information is necessary to fully evaluate Autopilot and other similar active driver assistance systems.

Euro NCAP, an agency that performs safety evaluations on new cars sold in Europe, is already rating these systems. And it is including factors other than performance in those ratings, says Matthew Avery, director of research at Thatcham Research, a road safety research agency funded by the insurance industry and based in the U.K. Avery is also a board member of Euro NCAP. 

The NCAP evaluation includes an assessment of the marketing of the systems, including whether the system names accurately portray their true capabilities, and also takes into account whether a system is designed to maintain driver engagement.

Funkhouser says that regulators in the U.S. should take a similar approach because preventing misuse and abuse of a driver assistance system is key to ensuring road safety.

“Even though all automakers are adding this technology to their cars, we aren’t seeing sufficient safeguards to keep drivers engaged, so now it’s time for regulators to step in,” she says.

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.