No one knows how safe the new driver assistance systems really are

This week a US Department of Transportation report describes in detail the accidents in which modern driver assistance systems have been involved in the last year or more. Tesla‘S advanced features, including autopilot and full self – management, account for 70 percent of nearly 400 incidents – far more than previously known. But the report may raise more questions about this safety technology than answers, researchers say, due to blind spots in the data.

The report examines systems that promise to eliminate some of the annoying or dangerous parts of driving by automatically changing lanes, staying in lanes, stopping before a collision, slowing down before major road turns and, in some cases, working on motorways without the intervention of the driver. Systems include Autopilot, Ford’s BlueCruise, General Motors’ Super Cruise and Nissan’s ProPilot Assist. Although it shows that these systems are not perfect, there is still much to learn about how a new breed of safety features actually work along the way.

This is largely due to the fact that car manufacturers have very different ways of presenting their accident data to the federal government. Some, such as Tesla, BMW and GM, can download detailed data from their cars wirelessly after an accident. This allows them to quickly comply with the requirement for 24-hour billing. But others, such as Toyota and Honda, do not have these options. Chris Honda, a spokesman for American Honda, said in a statement that the carmaker’s reports to DOT were based on “unverified customer statements” about whether their advanced driver assistance systems were turned on when the crash occurred. Later, the car manufacturer can retrieve data from the “black box” from its vehicles, but only with the customer’s permission or at the request of law enforcement and only with specialized cable equipment.

Of the 426 crash reports detailed in the government report, only 60 percent came from car telematics systems. The remaining 40 percent were through customer reports and lawsuits – sometimes infiltrated through diffuse dealer networks – media reports and law enforcement. As a result, the report does not allow anyone to make apple-to-apple comparisons between safety features, says Brian Reimer, who studies vehicle automation and safety at MIT’s AgeLab.

Even the data that the government collects is not in full context. The government, for example, does not know how often a car using an extended assistance function crashes on the miles it drives. The National Road Safety Administration, which published the report, warned that some accidents could occur more than once in the dataset. And carmakers with high market shares and good reporting systems – especially Tesla – are probably overrepresented in crash reports simply because they have more cars on the road.

It is important that the NHTSA report does not discourage carmakers from providing more comprehensive data, said Jennifer Homey, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “The last thing we want is to punish manufacturers who collect reliable safety data,” she said in a statement. “What we want is data that tells us what safety improvements need to be made.”

Without this transparency, it can be difficult for drivers to make sense of, compare and even use the features that come with their car – and for regulators to keep track of who is doing what. “As we gather more data, NHTSA will be able to better identify any emerging risks or trends and learn more about how these technologies are presented in the real world,” said Stephen Cliff, the agency’s administrator, in a statement.

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