New NHTSA chief wants to better understand and regulate autonomous vehicle technology

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently received a new chief named Steve Cliff, who was confirmed into the position by the Senate late last month. In one of his first interviews since then, Cliff said he wants his agency to strengthen and grow its understanding of autonomous vehicle technology so that it can better regulate the industry.

While speaking with the Associated Press, Cliff said that when he was surprised to learn the NHTSA had not compiled data on autonomous vehicle crashes when first joined the NHTSA in February 2021. Since then Cliff has worked to do just that, and one of the first acts in his new role was to release that data earlier this month, revealing that Tesla accounted for the majority of the nearly 400 crashes in the report.

Unlike some critics who pounced on the data despite it coming with a disclaimer, Cliff made it clear that Tesla’s over-representation was the result of having nearly 830,000 vehicles operating with driver-assist technology, a much larger population than other automakers. Also working in Tesla’s benefit, or against depending on your viewpoint, is that they can report crash data almost instantly, compared to other automakers who may not even know their vehicles have crashed unless someone reports it to them.

Despite initiating a number of investigations into Tesla, Cliff believes the NHTSA works well with the Texas-based automaker, saying that they are proactive and cooperative.

“I think we work well with them, and when we have identified that there are risks, they’ve taken action, and that’s appropriate,” he said.

When it comes to the future, Cliff says he will work to make automatic emergency braking systems standard on all new passenger vehicles and heavy trucks. But he doesn’t want the NHTSA to work too quickly and make mistakes that compromise safety, so they will investigate and set metrics for how the braking systems should detect objects.

“It’s important for us to take the data that comes from those incidents, better understand it in an engineering context. I think it’s important to move quickly but not so fast that we’re getting it wrong,” he said.

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