Federal regulators released data today painting the clearest picture yet of the state of driverless vehicle safety in the U.S. That picture includes at least half a dozen deaths.
Between July 1, 2021 and May 15 this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received 392 reported incidents of crashes involving Level 2 advanced driver assistance technology which resulted in at least six deaths and five serious injuries. Tesla accounted for the vast majority of crash reports with 273 followed by Honda in a distant second with 90. The findings mark the first major accounting of driverless vehicle tech-related crashes by a regulator and provides a stark, if limited glimpse into the technology’s real world effect.
The data, released on Wednesday, comes from self-reported crash data provided by carmakers of crashes occurring on publicly accessible roads. The carmakers are required to submit reports of incidents any time a Level 2 ADAS is in use within 30 seconds of a crash. The data included in this report narrows in specifically on Level 2 ADAS, the most commonly available version of a driver assistance tech commercially available and currently driving on public roads.
116 of the reported crashed cars collided with another vehicle, while at least four involved a “vulnerable road user” such as a pedestrian or cyclist. In total, ADAS-equipped vehicles collided with at least one cyclist, three pedestrians, 20 poles or trees, and 10 animals.
The majority of the reported crashes occurred in California. The country’s most populous state accounted for 125 of the reported incidents. Florida came in second with 33 incidents, followed by Texas and New York with 33 and 30, respectively.
The NHTSA did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment but in a release accompanying the data, NHTSA Administrator Steven Cliff said it was being released in an effort to increase transparency and accountability.
“New vehicle technologies have the potential to help prevent crashes, reduce crash severity and save lives, and the Department is interested in fostering technologies that are proven to do so; collecting this data is an important step in that effort,” Cliff said. “As we gather more data, NHTSA will be able to better identify any emerging risks or trends and learn more about how these technologies are performing in the real world.”
The findings come three months after the NHTSA formally announced it would no longer require self-driving cars to come equipped with steering wheels, brake pedals, drivers’ seats, or other manual driving control to pass crash standards.
Tesla did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self Driving features responsible for vast majority of reported ADAS crashes
The findings come just one week after the NHTSA revealed it had expanded its investigation of Tesla’s Autopilot feature following reports of equipped cars crashing into first responder vehicles. In that case, the NHTSA upped its probe from a “preliminary evaluation” to a “engineering analysis,” which is typically the last stage before a recall is issued.
It’s worth noting that Tesla’s place at the top of ADAS crashes does not, on its own, necessarily mean its technologies are less safe than competitors. For one, Tesla’s Autopilot feature is among the most used self-driving technologies so it’s naturally more likely to account for a larger share of accidents. Second, the NHTSA says certain car manufacturers with telematics capabilities (such as Tesla) are better equipped to share crash data with them than others. In some cases, the same report may have also been reported multiple times.
Still, the findings don’t bode well for Tesla which has openly pointed to self-driving technology as integral to the company’s long-term vision. CEO Elon Musk reiterated that belief this week during a Kilowatts interview posted on YouTube.
“The overwhelming focus is solving self-driving, that’s essential,” Musk said. “That’s really the difference between Tesla being worth a lot of money and being worth basically zero.”
Tesla was briefly valued at over a trillion dollars earlier this year, a figure previously unheard of for a car company.
If public sentiments are any guide though, continued reports calling into question Autopilot and FSD safety are the last thing Tesla wants. 47% of U.S. residents surveyed in 2021 by Morning Consult said they believed driverless cars were less safe than cars driven by humans. The smaller percentage of respondents who said they thought driverless cars were safer than normal cars actually dipped down from 27% in 2018 to just 22% last year. A separate 2020 poll conducted by Partners for Automated Vehicle Education found that around three in four Americans said they thought driverless technology “is not ready for primetime.”
Pulling safety aside, there’s a bigger problem plaguing AVs at the moment. The majority of people still, after years and years of hype surrounding the technology, overwhelmingly want nothing to do with supposedly self-driving cars. 63% of U.S. adults surveyed by Pew Research earlier this year said they would not want to ride in a driverless car if they had the opportunity. Another 44% thought the idea of widespread driverless cars are a net bad thing for society as opposed to just 26% of those who said they would be good. While technologists and AV supporters continue to hope AV technology can one day make car accidents a relic, average consumers seem to have lost the plot.
It’s possible those pessimistic views could soften as advances in tech make AV’s less likely to hurl themselves into cop cars and swerve into opposing traffic, but the roads appear long, particularly in the U.S. A 2019 Ipsos survey found U.S. interest in AVs was among the lowest of any country probed.