Tesla is utilizing prospects to check AV tech on public roads: NTSB

A Tesla Mannequin S automobile outfitted with Autopilot

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Pictures

A federal company is looking for harder necessities on testing autonomous driving, and the proposed modifications might finally pressure Tesla to vary the way it rolls out options to prospects.

The Nationwide Transportation Security Board is looking for stronger federal necessities for the design and use of automated driving techniques on public roads. In a letter to its sister company, the Nationwide Freeway Visitors Security Administration, dated final month and never but reported on, NTSB chief Robert Sumwalt named Tesla 16 instances in calling for sweeping change.

“Tesla not too long ago launched a beta model of its Stage 2 Autopilot system, described as having full self-driving functionality. By releasing the system, Tesla is testing on public roads a extremely automated AV know-how however with restricted oversight or reporting necessities,” Sumwalt wrote. “NHTSA’s hands-off strategy to oversight of AV testing poses a possible danger to motorists and different street customers.”

Whereas each the NTSB and NHTSA are car security watchdogs within the U.S. authorities, their roles are distinct.

The NTSB investigates accidents to find out underlying causes of damaging incidents, together with deadly Tesla crashes involving Autopilot in Mountain View, California, in March 2018 and Del Ray Seashore, Florida, in March 2019. The board additionally makes security suggestions to regulators and the auto business.

It is as much as its sister company, the NHTSA, to mandate remembers of any autos, techniques or elements deemed faulty or unsafe to be used. It additionally falls throughout the NHTSA’s purview to determine requirements and reporting necessities for car security and design, together with gasoline economic system requirements.

A federal crackdown might hamper Tesla’s means to check its Full Self-Driving techniques the best way it does in the present day — utilizing prospects and public roads as check pilots and proving grounds.

Prior to now, NHTSA has hesitated to control automated driving techniques from the likes of Tesla, GM, Volvo, and a bevy of different automakers and tech firms together with Amazon’s Zoox, Alphabet’s Waymo and quite a few start-ups.

The company’s Deputy Administrator James Owens has mentioned he didn’t need to “stymie innovation” with untimely regulation. As a substitute, the company left the duty largely to states.

Tesla’s self-driving contradictions

As we speak, Tesla sells a premium software program package deal for $10,000 and markets it as “Full Self Driving” (or FSD). The corporate mentioned it’ll quickly make FSD out there on a subscription foundation for many who need it however do not need to pay the up-front payment.

Tesla offers choose prospects early entry to a beta model of FSD as nicely — successfully turning prospects into software program testers. CEO Elon Musk not too long ago inspired prospects with FSD to enroll in beta entry.

Moreover FSD, Tesla autos embody a typical set of automated driving options, dubbed Autopilot.

Regardless of these names — which suggest to some drivers that they’ll function Tesla electrical autos hands-free — the corporate cautions in its homeowners’ handbook that Autopilot and FSD require energetic supervision.

Musk repeatedly hypes Autopilot and FSD to his huge following on Twitter and in media interviews, however in correspondence with regulators, and within the advantageous print of Tesla monetary filings, the corporate’s authorized staff refers to those techniques in a extra subdued and exact tone.

On April 22, 2019, on the firm’s Autonomy Day presentation, the CEO promised that Tesla’s self-driving tech could be so good, Tesla could be making vehicles with no steering wheels or pedals in two years. At that same event, he talked about a custom chip designed to enable self-driving features.

On May 2, 2019, Musk confidently told investors on a fundraising call that autonomous driving would transform his electric vehicle business into a company with a $500 billion market cap. A few days later, Tesla closed an over-subscribed $2.7 billion offering of stock and convertible notes. At the time, its market cap was under $50 billion; now it’s more than $600 billion.

This year, Musk said on the Feb 11 episode of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, “I think Autopilot’s getting good enough that you won’t need to drive most of the time unless you really want to.”

And yet, in sharp contrast with Musk’s promises, Tesla calls its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving option merely “advanced driver assist systems,” according to the company’s most recent financial filing. And in correspondence last year with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, Tesla categorized its Full Self-Driving option as only “level 2.”

“Level 2,” refers to vehicles that have some automated functions, but require drivers to remain attentive and keep their hands on the wheel. The highest level, level 5, would be a completely autonomous vehicle that never requires driver intervention.

The DMV correspondence was first obtained by Think Computer Foundation and published by Plainsite, an online database of public records and court documents that can be otherwise difficult to access. 

CNBC reached out to Tesla and the company’s acting general counsel, Al Prescott, for comment, but they did not immediately respond.

Clear rules could help the industry

Sumwalt’s requests of the NHTSA seem straightforward: He called on the agency to require automakers to include collision avoidance systems in all their vehicles — the NTSB has investigated multiple Tesla Autopilot incidents —to provide robust driver monitoring systems, and to add safeguards that ensure drivers won’t use automated driving systems beyond the conditions and domains in which it is safe to do so.

Specific to Tesla, he recommended that NHTSA look at Tesla vehicles with Autopilot “to determine if the system’s operating limitations, the foreseeability of driver misuse, and the ability to operate the vehicles outside the intended ODD [operational design domain] pose an unreasonable risk to safety.” He added, “To date, NHTSA has shown no indication that it is prepared to respond effectively and in a timely manner to potential AV safety-related defects.”

Sumwalt also wants the NHTSA to make safety reporting to the feds more specific and mandatory. Autonomous vehicle developers can currently volunteer their data, but don’t have to report it.

Despite Sumwalt’s criticism of the current processes, he lauded the NHTSA for engaging and collaborating with his agency, along with state and local governments to arrive at the right balance of rules and regulations around emerging vehicle technologies.

Clear rules from one central office could help the autonomous vehicle industry in the U.S. overall, says the CEO of Snow Bull Capital’s Taylor Ogan. Federal rules, even if stringent, could align states and local authorities and reduce the patchwork of separate regulations around autonomous vehicles in each region, he said.

Ogan is a long time Tesla owner and proponent of Tesla and electric vehicles. His firm, Snow Bull, is a hedge fund that has historically been long Tesla, and does not short any stocks.

He personally drives a 2020 Model Y performance Tesla loaded with the Full Self-Driving option. It’s his fourth Tesla. The investor said, based on his personal use of the vehicle, that he believes Tesla’s is the best level 2 system on the market in the US today.

However, Ogan said, “My car cannot navigate autonomously in a parking lot, so I don’t know why people think these will operate as robotaxis. Our opinion is that Tesla cannot achieve Level 3 or Level 4 autonomy – which means no robotaxis — any time soon with their current hardware.”

In his view, competitors are already surpassing Tesla on self-driving in China, where the company faces competition from Nio, Xpeng and a joint venture between Didi Chuxing and BYD that’s developing a ride-hailing “robotaxi” called the D1.

Here’s the full letter from NTSB to NHTSA:

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the NTSB is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. It was made independent from the DOT in 1974.

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