Tesla’s “Full-Self Driving” (FSD) driver-assist feature does not offer what its name promises.
Although Tesla CEO Elon Musk portrays the software as a prelude to fully autonomous vehicles, a quick online search shows videos of FSD-enabled Teslas in North America
But if you look for similar videos of FSD-enabled Teslas stumbling their way through Europe’s cobblestone streets, you’ll come up empty. It’s not because Tesla’s system is better able to navigate San Sebastián than San Francisco; there are simply no FSD videos from Europe at all.
Why? FSD isn’t approved for public use there.
Tesla cannot deploy FSD anywhere in the European Union unless it first obtains a green light from regulators. To obtain that approval, Tesla must convincingly demonstrate that cars with FSD are
Unlike their European peers, American car regulators do not require — or even offer — any kind of safety preapproval for a new car model or technology. Instead, car companies “self-certify” that their vehicles comply with federal guidelines pertaining to everything from steering wheels to brake fluids. But no such rules address the driver assistance and autonomous technologies that are critical to the car’s future — and to the safety of everyone who walks, bikes, or drives.
Facing no significant oversight, automakers like Tesla can legally deploy any advanced driver-assist system (ADAS) they like, regardless of how dangerous it may be. According to federal law, only if the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) observes a pattern of dangerous problems can it launch an investigation (which NHTSA is now
With its blurring of lines between driver and vehicle, the automation of cars is forcing US regulators to rethink their traditional approach. A federal official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said that NHTSA is currently exploring how it could structure a preapproval process for autonomous technologies, a move that could finally force US carmakers to ask permission to deploy a new technology — rather than beg forgiveness after something goes wrong.
For the United States, it’s an opportune time to ask a fundamental question: is it wise to wait until after disaster strikes to protect Americans from dangerously designed vehicles?
Riding in an American automobile was a risky proposition during the early 20th century; 16 Americans were killed per 100 million miles driven in 1929,
Despite the carnage, federal officials paid minimal attention to car safety until outrage followed the 1965 publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader’s explosive bestseller. A year later, Congress enacted the first comprehensive federal rules for car safety, and NHTSA was born in 1970.
Even as federal officials weighed various automotive regulatory frameworks, they never seriously considered forcing carmakers to obtain preapproval for a new vehicle model or component.
Lee Vinsel, a Virginia Tech professor of science, technology, and society who wrote a
Here’s how it works: the encyclopedic Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) establishes rules for any car sold for use on public roads, touching on everything from the
“The expectation is that a new FMVSS element will take 10–15 years before coming into effect,” said Daniel Hinkle of the American Association for Justice, a trade group for trial lawyers.
Manufacturers show their adherence to FMVSS through a process known as self-certification, which works largely as it sounds: car companies simply affix a
“It’s unusual to see vehicle crashes that are specifically due to FMVSS non-compliance,” Hinkle said.
NHTSA only brings the hammer down with a recall if an investigation uncovers a pattern of safety problems on public roadways. Such investigations take months; meanwhile, Americans continue to drive the faulty or dangerously designed vehicles.
Notably, the US adopts a much more proactive safety posture toward aviation safety. When an airplane manufacturer wants to build a new kind of plane or alter a component, the company must work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to obtain approval prior to deployment.
Crash data suggests that that framework has served flyers well.
“It’s not unusual to have a year where there are zero deaths in commercial aviation in the United States,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg
We also take it as normal that the FAA’s regulatory model, centered around preapproval of new planes and technologies, is not applicable to automobiles — despite an American roadway death toll that is
Across the Atlantic, Europeans are far less likely to die in a car crash than Americans. In France, for instance, the per capita roadway death rate is
For instance, new vehicle models sold in the European Union must
From a process perspective, the European system of automotive regulations works more like the US’s hands-on approach toward aviation than its laissez-faire oversight of motor vehicles.
Before a new vehicle or component can be released to the public, the car company must obtain preapproval known as
European car rules have real teeth; in 2019 they forced Tesla to
Antony Lagrange, the team leader for automated and connected vehicles and safety at the European Commission, makes no apologies for Europe’s regulatory assertiveness. “We’re talking about very complex, safety-critical products,” he said. “We need to ensure that these products are safe for production — and that they continue to be safe after they’ve been released.”
The same holds true for over-the-air updates, an increasingly common method of updating car software that avoids forcing the owner to visita dealership. In America, automakers are free to issue such updates whenever they wish, but in Europe, they must obtain preapproval from European regulators.
That requirement implicitly encourages automakers to limit the frequency of over-the-air updates, which may itself make cars safer. “One thing that type approval has going for it is that it forces car companies to measure twice and cut once,” said Ed Niedermeyer, a co-host of the Autonocast podcast. “In the United States, there is no regulatory cost of putting out a mediocre product and iterating. It makes sense to try and force the companies to get it right the first time.”
That sentiment was echoed by Jascha Franklin-Hodge, chief of streets for the city of Boston who previously worked in Silicon Valley. “My worst fear,” said Franklin-Hodge, “is that carmakers adopt a software development mentality, with an acceptance of errors that constantly require correction.”
Is the European regulatory system of automobile type approval superior to the American norm of self-certification? It depends whom you ask.
Type approval processes are expensive, both for governments employing a small army of engineers to test vehicles and for car companies forced to navigate complex regulatory systems before they can sell to the public.
American carmakers would prefer the status quo. “The current self-certification model should be preserved, since this framework has worked well in the US,”
Finch Fulton, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy in the Trump administration, agreed. (Finch now works at Locomation AI, an autonomous trucking company.) “If you were to shift NHTSA towards a type approval model, there are no clear benefits, but the increase to NHTSA’s budget would likely be astronomical,” he said.
Missy Cummings, a former Duke engineering professor who now works at NHTSA, previously
Of course, it might not be a bad thing to add a few more engineers to NHTSA’s ranks or to slow down the launch of a work-in-progress system like Tesla FSD. The arguments in favor of preapproval strengthen as automobiles morph into three-ton computers on wheels, where a system malfunction could have catastrophic consequences. Indeed, technologically complex, partially automated cars seem similar to the airplanes that the US has long regulated with type approval — with a sparkling safety record, especially compared with the carnage on US roadways.
In 2016, NHTSA issued
Six years later, the agency seems to be giving preapproval new consideration: a source said that NHTSA is now developing a pilot that would empower the agency to weigh in before a new automated technology is deployed on public roads.
Asked for comment, an NHTSA spokesperson would say only that “the agency is committed to continually evaluating its authorities and processes to help ensure the safe development of advanced vehicle technologies.”
Kelly Funkhouser, Consumer Reports’ manager of vehicle technology, said she would support such a move. “Our government just can’t move fast enough for self-certification to be an effective strategy,” she said “We need pre-approval to be brought into the conversation.”
Still, the very idea of questioning self-certification is so sensitive that Buttigieg quickly changed the subject in
The topic may be uncomfortable, but it is becoming unavoidable. Beyond the surge in American
Consider how ADAS systems like Autopilot are already muddying the traditional line between state-licensed “drivers” and federally-approved “vehicles.” In 2016, a Tesla with Autopilot activated was traveling at 74 mph near Williston, Florida, when it
Following an investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board
The state / federal divide grows even murkier with Level 4 vehicles, capable of being operated without any engagement from a driver on certain roadways. States like California require AV operators to obtain a permit to deploy a Level 4 vehicle on state roads; cities like New York City have
As we enter an era of automated driving, how can regulations best protect American road users? To date, conversations about adjusting car regulations for autonomous technology have ignored the weaknesses of self-certification, focusing instead on removing obstacles that might slow new deployments. For instance,
Still, Buttigieg does seem to recognize the need to chart a different path for automaker oversight. “So many of our regulations to keep cars safe are based on how cars always used to be,” he said
Any movement toward type approval would be a heavy political lift, facing opposition from a recalcitrant auto industry as well as fiscal hawks wary of adding to NHTSA’s budget. But the transition need not happen all at once; it could begin with a handful of preapproval checks for obvious safety problems, like
With road deaths already at a 20-year high, we need fewer risks — not more of them — on American streets and highways. Type approval could be a critical tool to help navigate the autonomous era to come.
Lucas Peilert provided research assistance