The nation’s new chief accident investigator wants to send a message: Growing public confusion over automated driving systems in the U.S. is threatening to undermine the potential safety benefits of the technology.
Jennifer Homendy took the reins as chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board one week ago, just as controversy erupted over Tesla Inc.’s so-called Autopilot. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Monday opened an investigation into car accidents involving the use of Autopilot.
“Whether it’s Tesla or anyone else, it is incumbent on these manufacturers to be honest in what their technology does and does not do,” Homendy told Bloomberg News in her first interview since she was sworn in on Aug. 13.
Homendy, 49, a former Capitol Hill staffer who has served as an NTSB board member since 2018, went on to praise Tesla’s cooperation during multiple previous NTSB investigations and said she didn’t want to single the company out. She cited TV advertisements for various vehicles that create the false impression they are capable of steering and braking on their own when drivers must still monitor the systems. At a recent conference she attended of state highway safety officials, most said they thought some models could operate themselves.
“I was stunned,” Homendy said.
Addressing the safety of these driver assist systems is one of a “very long list” of actions Homendy plans to shake up transportation safety. She’s vowing to ask Congress to expand the staff and budget of the agency, and to put new focus on emerging technologies such as automated cars and human space flight.
“I think we have a great past,” Homendy said, “but I think we have to be future-looking.”
Homendy was staff director for Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s panel overseeing railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials before being appointed as a member of the safety board in 2018. Robert Sumwalt, who was NTSB chairman for almost four years, stepped down June 30.