NTSB’s Homandy hopes to become Tesla watchdog

Federal regulators last month officially launched an investigation into crashes involving Tesla Inc.’s Autopilot system. Jennifer Homendy, the new leader of the government’s transportation security watchdog, hopes this is just the beginning.

The 49-year-old was sworn in on August 13 as the new leader of the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency responsible for investigating transport accidents and issuing recommendations to improve safety.

Over the years, the board has raised the alarm about problems with driver monitoring and marketing for low-level automation in cars, a technology known as Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) that helps drivers navigate traffic. But they need to be fully alert at all times.

Homendy has been one of the most vocal critics on the NTSB, calling Tesla to task on Twitter and pushing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — the agency with enforcement power over auto safety — to take action to ensure that the technology is safe. conspicuously used. Now as leader of the board, she hopes to use her powerful voice in Washington to continue that drumming up.

“People listen because they know we’re fact-based, they know we absolutely are, they know our investigators’ reputations,” she said in an interview with The Detroit News. “They know we come forward with the right thing to do to prevent that accident — not just what we thought we could accomplish with a cost-benefit analysis.”

Over the past five years, NHTSA has investigated more than two dozen Tesla accidents that have injured 17 people and killed one. The accidents have prompted criticism from safety advocates and industry experts that the company is overstating the vehicles’ self-driving capabilities and potentially endangering the lives of its customers.

A Tesla sedan collided with a police cruiser in Laguna Beach, California.

A Tesla sedan in Autopilot mode crashes into a parked police cruiser in Laguna Beach, Calif., in May 2018. The officer was not in the car at the time of the accident; The Tesla driver suffered minor injuries. (Laguna Beach Police Department via The Associated Press)

As accidents increased, the NTSB urged NHTSA to create a standard for driver assistance technology, include it in federal new car testing, and specifically investigate abuse of Tesla’s systems. Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Homendy said the agency’s recent announcement of an investigation into 12 Tesla emergency vehicles crashes is “a really positive step,” but she plans to keep up the pressure. The agency has still not implemented most of the board’s recommendations.

She said “more needs to be done” to make driver assistance technology safer. “There is a lot of discussion going on right now about investing in innovation and transportation. But there hasn’t been a lot of focus on security and I think we play a big role in that.”

a public voice

Tesla’s Autopilot system can automatically start, brake, accelerate and change lanes. Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. And other automakers have similar ADAS programs in some of their vehicles.

Tesla is also selling add-ons for up to $10,000 to use a beta version of its “Full Self-Driving” program on public roads, which is also an advanced driver-assistance system.

Cars with ADAS cannot drive themselves, and there are no fully autonomous vehicles available to consumers in the US today. But that hasn’t stopped some Tesla fans from taking chances, posting videos of people sleeping, playing video games, or sitting in the back seat of Teslas while their vehicles drive on the highway.

Critics and safety advocates have argued that CEO Elon Musk has exaggerated the capabilities of Autopilot and full self-driving while encouraging reckless behavior, and the NHTSA for not doing more to investigate dozens of accidents involving Tesla vehicles. has teased. Musk has argued that the company is clear about the capabilities of the vehicles.

One of the speakers of Homendi.

“‘Full self-driving’ implies that the vehicle can still drive itself without input from a human operator. This is not true. Safety measures must be put in place to prevent such misleading claims. Where is the NHTSA?” She wrote on Twitter late last year.

“NHTSA’s mission is to save lives first and foremost. Tech can improve safety in all modes of transportation, but not when innovation is prioritized,” wrote Homandy. “If automakers mislead consumers. If so, regulators need to step in and act before more lives are lost.”

David Zipper, a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Tubman Center for State, said his willingness to use social media to call out automakers and government inaction makes Homendy a unique voice on the NTSB, whose other members are either absent. Or are more reserved on Twitter. and local government.

“Twitter is a legitimate platform for getting messages out there,” Zipper said. “I think it’s pretty clear what she’s looking for and where her thoughts are with respect to Tesla.”

Last week, NHTSA asked Tesla to provide a wealth of data about how its Autopilot system is working by the end of October. The agency’s investigation covers 12 accidents, but could affect 765,000 Tesla vehicles manufactured between 2014 and 2021 if the agency determines a recall is necessary.

The speed and scope of the investigation may be an indicator that the NHTSA and NTSB are entering an era of “alignment, coordination and support” rather than “increasing excitement,” Zipper said.

“It’s been going around for a while,” he said. “There’s a growing sense that something is fundamentally wrong here. It’s not okay to let automakers try whatever they like on public roads, and potentially put people at risk in the process .

dog chase

While Homendy is happy with NHTSA launching an investigation into the issues with Tesla, he says more needs to be done to improve the semi-autonomous technology already on the road.

Advanced driver-assistance systems are readily available, she said, “yet we’re not obsessing over that and focusing on what the future holds, when technologies that can prevent fatalities and injuries, No longer focused. It’s always, ‘Okay, what’s the next thing down the road.'”

Road signs

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The NTSB has issued a number of recommendations to NHTSA, including expanding the New Car Assessment Program to test accident prevention systems, developing safety standards to monitor motorists who use ADAS, to ensure That includes keeping their eye on the road, and enforcing more stringent requirements to prevent distracted driving.

He said the government should also develop guidelines for marketing driver-assistance systems, a message that should apply to all automakers, not just Tesla. “The public has a right to know what their vehicle does and does not do, and should be fully educated on that. I would submit that is not really happening right now.”

NHTSA’s response could have a huge impact on the industry: how it will develop autonomous vehicles, and whether the public trusts AVs, Zipper said.

NHTSA told The Detroit News via email that it is “delighted to be working with the NTSB” and welcomes the agency’s input on safety recommendations. “Safety is central to NHTSA’s mission and we are committed to improving safety for all road users.”

Homendy joined the NTSB in 2018 after spending 14 years serving as the Democratic staff director for Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee subcommittee. Prior to this, she was a legislative representative for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the AFL-CIO’s Department of Transportation Business.

Jennifer Homendy briefs the media after a helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant

Then an NTSB board member, Homendy briefed the media about the helicopter crash that killed NBA star Kobe Bryant and eight others in January 2020. (Damien Dovargens / The Associated Press)

Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said that in the years since joining the agency, Homendy has gained a reputation for being a dog safety advocate. “There is no doubt what kind of relentless relentless attitude she is going to bring to this situation. She simply will not give up if the regulatory authority has limited success at first in persuading people to act.”

Similarly, Homendy also sees the role. She remembers when she was working with Congress, inspired by NTSB advocates fighting for 50 years to change train rules.

“It’s unheard of for an agency to be after something for 50 years. It’s great because they haven’t given up,” she said. This is especially important for an agency like the NTSB that has the power to make its recommendations a reality. Not there.

“When (accidents) are repeated, it can certainly be frustrating to be on the scene,” she said. “But we have the facts, and we just want to improve safety and make sure lives are saved.”

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