Automakers are pushing autonomous technology. This engineer wants limits.

Automakers are pushing autonomous technology. This engineer wants limits.

Automakers are pushing autonomous technology. This engineer wants limits.

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Last fall, Missy Cummings sent a document to her colleagues at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that revealed a startling trend: When people using advanced driver assistance systems die or are injured in car crashes , they are more likely to have speeded than people who drive their own car.


The two-page analysis of nearly 400 crashes involving systems like Tesla’s Autopilot and General Motors’ Super Cruise is far from conclusive. But it raises new questions about the technologies that have been installed in hundreds of thousands of cars on American roads. Dr Cummings said the data indicated drivers were becoming overconfident in the systems’ capabilities and that carmakers and regulators should restrict when and how the technology was used.

People “trust technology too much,” she said. “They let the cars accelerate. And they have accidents that seriously injure or kill them. »

Dr Cummings, a professor of engineering and computer science at George Mason University who specializes in autonomous systems, recently returned to the university after more than a year with the security agency. On Wednesday, she will present some of her findings at the University of Michigan, a short drive from Detroit, the main hub of the US auto industry.

Systems like Autopilot and Super Cruise, which can steer, brake and accelerate vehicles on their own, are becoming more common as automakers compete to win over car buyers with promises of superior technology. Companies sometimes market these systems as if they make cars self-driving. But their legal fine print requires drivers to stay alert and be ready to take control of the vehicle at a moment’s notice.

In interviews last week, Dr Cummings said automakers and regulators should prevent these systems from operating above the speed limit and require drivers using them to keep their hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road.

“Automakers — that is, Tesla and others — are marketing this as hands-free technology,” she said. “It’s a nightmare.”

But these are not measures that NHTSA can easily put in place. Any effort to limit the use of driver assistance systems is likely to be met with criticism and legal action from the auto industry, particularly from Tesla and its chief executive, Elon Musk, who has long chafed at rules he considers outdated.

Security experts also said the agency was chronically underfunded and lacked qualified personnel to do its job properly. The agency has also operated without a Senate-confirmed permanent head for much of the past six years.

Dr Cummings acknowledged that it would be difficult to enforce the rules she was calling for. She said she also knew her comments could again inflame supporters of Mr. Musk and Tesla who attacked her on social media and sent her death threats after she was named a senior adviser at the security agency.

But Dr Cummings, 56, one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots, said she felt compelled to speak out because “technology is being abused by humans”.

“We need to put regulations in place that deal with this,” she said.

The security agency and Tesla did not respond to requests for comment. GM pointed to studies it conducted with the University of Michigan that examined the safety of its technology.

Since Autopilot and other similar systems allow drivers to relinquish active control of the car, many safety experts worry that the technology is tricking people into thinking cars are driving themselves. When technology malfunctions or can’t handle situations like having to turn quickly to miss stalled vehicles, drivers may not be prepared to take control quickly enough.

The systems use cameras and other sensors to check if the driver’s hands are on the wheel and if their eyes are looking at the road. And they will disengage if the driver is not paying attention for a significant period of time. But they work during times when the driver is not focused on driving.

Dr Cummings has long warned that this can be a problem – in academic papers, in interviews and on social media. She was named a senior safety adviser at NHTSA in October 2021, shortly after the agency began collecting data on crashes involving cars using driver assistance systems.

Mr Musk responded to his nomination in a post on Twitter, accusing him of being “extremely biased against Tesla”, without citing any evidence. It sparked a flurry of similar statements from his supporters on social media and in emails to Dr Cummings.

She said she eventually had to shut down her Twitter account and temporarily leave her home due to the harassment and death threats she was receiving at the time. A threat was serious enough to be investigated by police in Durham, North Carolina, where she lived.

Many claims were absurd and false. Some of Mr Musk’s supporters noticed that she was on the board of Veoneer, a Swedish company that sells sensors to Tesla and other automakers, but confused the company with Velodyne, an American company whose laser sensor technology – called lidar – is seen as a competitor to the sensors Tesla uses for Autopilot.

“We know you own lidar companies and if you accept the position of NHTSA adviser, we will kill you and your family,” said an email sent to him.

Jennifer Homendy, who heads the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency that investigates serious car crashes, and who has also been attacked by fans of Mr. Musk, told CNN Business in 2021 that the false claims about the Dr Cummings were a “calculated attempt”. to divert attention from real security issues.

Prior to joining NHTSA, Dr. Cummings quit Veoneer’s board, sold his stake in the company, and withdrew from the agency’s investigations that only involved Tesla, one of which was announced before. His arrival.

The analysis it sent to agency officials in the fall looked at advanced driver assistance systems from several companies, including Tesla, GM and Ford Motor. When cars using these systems were involved in fatal crashes, they exceeded the speed limit 50% of the time. In crashes with serious injuries, they were accelerating 42% of the time.

In accidents that did not involve driver assistance systems, these figures were 29% and 13%.

The amount of data the government has collected on accidents involving these systems is still relatively small. Other factors could skew the results.

Advanced driver assistance systems are used much more often on motorways than on city streets, for example. And the crash data analyzed by Dr. Cummings is dominated by Tesla, as its systems are more widely used than others. This could mean that the results unfairly reflect the performance of systems offered by other companies.

While at the federal safety agency, she also looked at what’s known as phantom braking, which is when driver assistance systems slow or stop cars for no apparent reason. Last month, for example, news site The Intercept published footage of a Tesla vehicle inexplicably braking in the middle of the Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco to Oakland and causing an eight-car pile-up that injured nine people, including one. 2 year old child. .

Dr Cummings said data from car manufacturers and customer complaints showed it was a problem with several driver assistance systems and with robotaxis developed by companies like Waymo, owned by the parent company of Google, and Cruise, a division of GM Now under test in several cities. , these self-driving taxis are designed to operate without a driver and transport passengers in San Francisco and the Phoenix area.

Many accidents apparently happen because the people traveling behind these cars are unprepared for these erratic stops. “Cars brake in ways that people don’t anticipate and are unable to react to,” she said.

Waymo and Cruise declined to comment.

Dr Cummings said the federal safety agency should work with automakers to restrict advanced driver assistance systems using its standard recall process, where companies agree to make changes voluntarily.

But experts wondered if automakers would make such changes without a significant fight.

The agency could also establish new rules that explicitly control the use of these systems, but that would take years and could result in legal action.

“NHTSA could do it, but would the courts uphold it?” said Matthew Wansley, a professor at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York who specializes in emerging automotive technologies.

Dr. Cummings said robotaxis are coming at about the right pace: After limited testing, federal, state and local regulators are limiting their growth until the technology is better understood.

But, she said, the government needs to do more to ensure the safety of advanced driver assistance systems like Autopilot and Super Cruise.

NHTSA “needs to flex its muscles more,” she said. “He shouldn’t be afraid of Elon or market moves if there is an obvious unreasonable risk.”


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