NHTSA is undertaking the important and daunting task of collecting data on related to Level 2 advanced driver-assistance systems and Level 3 to Level 5 automated driving systems. It's doing so nearly a year after issuing a standing general order that requires automakers to report crashes involving the technologies.
However, by the agency's own admission, the numbers are not terribly meaningful at this time. We think the public and automotive industry would be better served if it waits until enough data can be processed into useful information that will begin to shape policy, liability laws, property and casualty insurance guidelines, and consumer decision-making.
Headlines such as "400 crashes in vehicles with automated driving tech reported" and "Tesla reports 273 ADAS crashes, Honda 90 crashes" do not mean much without context. Should the public be alarmed? Does this mean advanced driver-assistance technology employed by Tesla and Honda, which reported the bulk of such crashes, is inherently more dangerous than systems used by other automakers?
Tesla's Autopilot driver-assistance system has come under scrutiny by NHTSA: About 830,000 vehicles from the 2014-22 model years are subject to an investigation that was recently upgraded to an engineering analysis, and they could be recalled.
To be sure, NHTSA has been forthright in saying that the crash data collected so far can't be used to compare manufacturers' system against one another. Some of the data comes from vehicle telematics systems, while other data comes from customer complaints and, in the case of automated driving systems, field reports. The agency also doesn't yet have important context such as number of vehicles deployed or miles traveled with the technology in use.
This is not a criticism of NHTSA's data collection or its intent. It has a monumentally challenging task of making sense of these emerging technologies and using that information to save lives. Doing so will take time. But such an early release, even with NHTSA's clear caveats, opens the numbers to misinterpretation — or even malicious manipulation.
NHTSA plans to issue updated numbers every month in the name of transparency, and perhaps actionable patterns will emerge. Until then, regulators, consumers and executives should use caution: Like driver-assist systems themselves, these reports can't be relied on to steer the industry to safety.