Over the past 10 months, nearly 400 crashes in the U.S. involved partial or fully automated vehicles. The disclosure, released Wednesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is the first of its kind and part of an ongoing effort by the federal government to track the safety of autonomous vehicles.
In Washington state, there were seven crashes in that same period, from July 1, 2021 to May 15, 2022. Details on the crashes are scant: Almost all information that could lend specificity to their circumstances were redacted or left out due to confidentiality requests from the reporting companies. As a result, the exact time, location or severity of the seven Washington crashes is not immediately clear.
The new data comes as deaths and serious injuries on American roads — still dominated by individual drivers in large cars — reach levels not seen in decades.
“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 performing in the real world,” Dr. Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s administrator, said in a statement.
The Washington crashes occurred in six cities: two in Seattle and one each in Fife, Bothell, Bellevue, Spokane and Ellensburg. Five crashes occurred on a highway, four involved a fixed object and three involved another vehicle. At least three caused property damage; the extent of the damage caused by the other four was listed as “unknown.”
Six of the seven crashes involved a Tesla. That trend is mirrored nationwide. Teslas running the company’s Autopilot program were involved in roughly 70% of crashes dating back to last summer. Five of six deaths tallied by NHTSA as part of this dataset involved Tesla vehicles.
The company has more vehicles using some form of automation on the road and its system is set to automatically report crashes, but the crash rate per 1,000 vehicles was nevertheless higher than any other company using automation.
At least 30 seconds before each crash, all seven vehicles were operating Level 2 advanced driver-assistance systems — a step below fully automated driving. Under this category, the car can control both speed and steering, but the driver is never disengaged from the driving process. By contrast, automated driving systems give full control to the vehicle’s programming on an extended basis.
In Washington state, four companies are approved to test fully autonomous vehicles, although only one, Amazon’s Zoox, is currently doing so, Christine Anthony, communications manager for the Washington State Department of Licensing, said in an email. Zoox is using a closed track to test its self-driving capabilities and is taking to public roads only under control of a driver, Anthony said.
Washington requires only a “light touch” for gaining certification, Anthony said. Companies need to fill out only a one-page form that certifies insurance information and that a person will be present to take over if necessary.
Tesla is not required to seek certification because its vehicles are not technically autonomous. Reema Griffith, executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission, said Tesla is a prime example of the private sector outpacing government.
“We’re moving slow and the industry’s moving fast,” she said.
The feds’ interest in the safety of automated vehicles was piqued by crashes and deaths involving Tesla’s Autopilot over the past six years, including nine that killed a total of 14 people in the U.S.
The promise of autonomous vehicles has been long foretold but slow to arrive. Boosters of the technology argue it will prove far safer than human-operated cars. Washington state saw nearly 600 traffic deaths last year, a 16-year high.
“It’s so rare for [cars with automation] to get into an accident that whenever it happens it becomes newsworthy,” said Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-Seattle, who sits on the state’s autonomous vehicle workgroup. But, he added, “If you look at the data, they’re more safe than cars now.”
In his executive order establishing regulations and a work group on autonomous vehicles, Gov. Jay Inslee wrote, “Roughly 94 percent of automobile accidents are caused by human error, and autonomous vehicle technology may reduce injuries and save countless lives.”
But viral images of vehicles veering into crosswalks, combined with reports of crashes, have raised concerns among safety advocates. In May, 2021 — before the 10-month stretch of data released by NHTSA Wednesday — a Tesla on Autopilot crashed into a Snohomish County Sheriff’s Deputy’s car, causing no injuries but extensive damage.
Mike McGinn, former Seattle mayor and current director of the pedestrian advocacy organization America Walks, said real safety improvements will come from changes to the country’s roads to slow drivers enough to prevent more deaths. In the meantime, he said, the federal government ought to be taking a heavier hand toward automated vehicles.
“We’re all just lab rats in an experiment,” he said.