The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been doing a deep dive into Tesla’s Autopilot to determine if 765,000 vehicles from the 2014 model year onward are fit to be on the road. We’ve covered it on numerous occasions, with your author often making a plea for regulators not to harp on one company when the entire industry has been slinging advanced driving aids and distracting infotainment displays for years.
Apparently someone at the NHTSA either heard the blathering, or was at least of a similar mind, because the organization has expanded its investigation to include roughly a dozen other automakers.
On Monday, letters were issued to major manufacturers — reportedly including BMW, Honda, Toyota, and Ford Motor Co. — requesting a “comparative analysis amongst production vehicles equipped with the ability to control both steering and braking/accelerating simultaneously under some circumstances.”
Bloomberg was the first to learn of the regulatory notices and stated that they included comprehensive documentation on how driver-assistance features work for each company, as well as how they know when and if a system was engaged in the event of an accident. Since the Tesla probe originally started by investigating vehicle crashes in the presence of rescue and law-enforcement vehicles, the NHTSA also wants to know how various systems handle their presence. Automakers were asked by regulators to respond no later than November 17th, 2021.
This is probably something the Department of Transportation should have been looking into years earlier, rather than allowing the industry to implement features that debatably went onto the market unproven. Now we’re in a situation where driving aids have become the norm and regulators are just starting to get serious about looking into some of the resulting complications. But it’s difficult to say what’s right when regulations often have unintended consequences and rarely seem to take the larger picture into account.
It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where the NHTSA wants all manufacturers to network all vehicles with emergency responders to prevent future incidents where an automobile goes haywire near some flashing lights and road flares. While that would almost assuredly result in a technical violation of the Fourth Amendment, counties lacking such protections have already implemented traffic enforcement centers (e.g. China) that track networked vehicles in real time and individual automakers have data hubs on U.S. soil doing roughly the same thing.
But that’s just one possible scenario.
Regulators could just as easily attempt to establish a set of rules relating to how, when, and where these systems can be operated. A certification and testing protocol could also be implemented to ensure their effectiveness or automakers might be forbade from implementing certain functions entirely. Nobody but bureaucrats hold any love for red tape, and it’s bound to result costly recall campaigns. However doing nothing might leave millions of vehicles on the road with potentially hazardous safety and convenience packages and I haven’t the faintest idea whether that’s going to be the best or absolute worst solution to this problem. There are several issues here begging to be addressed (safety, privacy, a lack of standardization, increased costs, manufacturing complexities, etc.) but so many regulatory actions turn out to be counter productive that it makes one hesitant to endorse anything.
As pickles go, this one is taking up the whole damn jar — thanks partially to regulators dragging their feet and out-of-touch legislators having next to no idea how any of these systems worked. Rather than examining things seriously six or seven years ago and attempting to establish a competent regulatory framework that could be updated as new technologies cropped up, the government now has to play catchup and plot a course of action while it’s still learning how these systems function.
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