Auto industry group urges driver monitoring, transparency in dig at Tesla
Washington — A leading auto industry advocacy group is calling upon automakers to outfit their semi-autonomous vehicles with driver monitoring technology and to clarify messaging so as not to mislead consumers.
The Alliance for Automotive Innovation doesn't name Tesla Inc. in the voluntary guidelines released Tuesday, but their target is clear: The message comes just over a week after another fatal Tesla crash in Texas and after engineers with Consumer Reports found a Tesla Model Y could easily be tricked into driving without someone in the driver's seat.
"High profile crashes involving Level 2 systems where drivers were not appropriately engaged, erode consumer acceptance of and consumer confidence in Level 2 systems and could have implications for acceptance of more highly-automated vehicles," said CEO John Bozzella. "It was clear to our member companies that we needed to begin a public conversation about the important of effective driver monitoring."
The group represents automakers responsible for 99% of new car sales in the country, Bozzella said. Missing from that lineup is Tesla — the only automaker besides General Motors Co. to currently offer a vehicle in the U.S. with Level 2 autonomy, which means the vehicle can steer or accelerate on its own but still requires a human to be alert and engaged at the wheel.
The Alliance's recommendations say automakers should offer driver monitoring as a standard feature in vehicles with Level 2 systems, a safety feature that identifies when a driver isn't paying attention to the road or is otherwise disengaged with driving, and recommend that camera-based systems that track drivers' eyes or head position should be "considered" as a component. GM's driver monitoring system uses a real-time camera while Tesla's does not.
The Alliance recommends the vehicle should give prompt warnings if it determines a driver isn't engaged and continue the warnings until they resume monitoring the road or take a "corrective action" such as coming safely to a stop.
The guidelines also say companies should evaluate the potential for driver misuse or abuse of the system as a part of the design process and the system name "should reasonably reflect the functionality."
Critics argue that Tesla's Autopilot and "Full Self-Driving" — both of which are driver-assist systems and don't make the vehicle fully autonomous — are misleading names that give customers the false impression they don't need to pay attention at the wheel.
Asked specifically whether Bozzella was concerned about Tesla's messaging causing the repeated accidents, undermining public confidence in driver-assist systems, he responded "there is no question that high-profile crashes have raised questions, consumer acceptance and consumer confidence questions."
The Internet is rife with examples of people driving on highways or asleep behind the wheel of a Tesla. The Texas crash, in which local police said no one was in the driver's seat at the time of the crash, and several other high-profile crashes have drawn the attention of federal regulators. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened 28 investigations into Tesla crashes. Twenty four of those remain active and four have happened since the beginning of March.
Musk told Automotive News last year that it would be "ridiculous" to rename the Autopilot system.
When people crash it "is because somebody is misusing it and using it directly contrary to how we've said it should be used," Musk said. "They've ignored the car beeping at them, flashing warnings, doing everything it can possibly do. It's not like some newbie who just got the car, and based on the name, thought they would instantly trust this car to drive itself. That's the idiotic premise of being upset with the Autopilot name."
NHTSA has not yet taken any regulatory action against Tesla, a stance that has been criticized by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Bozzella said the Alliance has been working on the guidelines for almost a year and will be presented to lawmakers during a congressional hearing Tuesday led by Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township.
Peters has been working on legislation that would make the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles easier and is working with Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota to get it attached to a bipartisan bill aimed at bolstering U.S. competition with China. The Senate Commerce Committee will consider the amendment on Wednesday.
Autonomous vehicles are currently in regulatory limbo in the U.S., with no specific guidelines and deployment hinging on receiving a limited waiver from NHTSA. Versions of Peters' and Thune's legislation in the past have also sought to implement safety guidelines specifically for autonomous vehicles.
NHTSA announced last November it was seeking public comment on how to regulate self-driving vehicles and the Biden administration has said it is still reviewing potential regulations.