Last month, US President Joe Biden confirmed that the current Deputy Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Steven Cliff would be promoted to the role of administrator for the agency. Cliff will take over the NHTSA at a crucial time for road safety development – road deaths are growing at an alarming rate while, elsewhere, the US lacks an effective regulatory framework to manage the deployment of partially autonomous vehicles.

Under the previous Trump administration, the NHTSA was accused of taking something of a back-seat role in driving road safety improvements. Mark Rosekind, its last administrator, left the agency in 2017 to join self-driving startup Zoox and no new leadership has been assigned until now. This saw Carla Bailo of the Center for Automotive Research label the agency ‘inactive’, while Jason Levine, executive director at the Center for Auto Safety, called it ‘dormant’.

The NHTSA’s hands-off approach looks especially unwise with the revelation that road deaths in the US have risen throughout the pandemic despite the fact that fewer people are using the roads. According to NHTSA’s own figures, annual deaths on the US’s roads rose by 7.2% in 2020 to 38,680, and deaths in Q1 2021 were up 10.5% on Q1 2020, despite a 2.1% decline in the total number of miles driven. There are several factors driving the increase US road deaths including the fact that, with fewer drivers on the roads, a reckless minority may have felt entitled to drive faster and more dangerously.

Now, however, the ascension of Cliff to head the agency is being seen by most observers as an indicator that the NHTSA will take a more active role in driving road safety improvements. It also seems likely that the agency will begin making new rules governing the development and use of autonomous vehicles considering models equipped with level 2 semi-autonomous systems are becoming more common on US roads.

Further evidence that autonomous vehicles are in the NHTSA’s sights can be seen with the appointment of Missy Cummings as a senior safety adviser. Cummings is a professor of engineering and computer science at Duke University – and former fighter pilot – with extensive experience of autonomous driving systems and has been openly critical of autonomous systems including Tesla’s Autopilot through her online presence. Cummings’ appointment in particular appears to have irked Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk who tweeted that Cummings track record is “extremely biased against Tesla”.

Musk’s concern over Cummings’ role appears to be driven by a concern that she will guide legislation that will impact Tesla – specifically in relation to its Autopilot and Full Self Driving semi-autonomous systems. This comes on top of the August 2021 announcement that the NHTSA would formally investigate the safety of Tesla’s Autopilot system after reviewing a number of cases where vehicles that were reportedly using the system collided with emergency vehicles.

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By GlobalData

Already, Tesla’s army of vocal supporters have criticized the decision to employ Cliff and Cummings. Among their points of contention are that Cummings herself was, until recently, a board member for VeoneerAutoliv’s ADAS and autonomous driving spin-off recently acquired by chip designer Qualcomm. Veoneer offers a range of ADAS and AV-related products including LiDAR sensors (light detection and ranging), which Tesla’s CEO has openly mocked as a ‘fool’s errand’, saying they

cost too much and don’t achieve anything that Tesla couldn’t already do without its vision-based approach to autonomous driving. Critics believe that Cummings’ alleged self interest in LiDAR technology could see the sensor type mandated in future AV regulations, financially damaging Tesla as it either disables existing AV systems or retrofits LiDARs to current models.

With all the ideological bluster being whipped up by the appointment of Cliff and Cummings to the NHTSA leadership, it can be hard to predict how the situation will play out away from the strident words posted on social media.


Three potential scenarios for future AV regulation in the US driven by a newly invigorated NHTSA

Scenario 1 – low impact

Driven by pressure from Tesla and other lobbies not to rock the boat, the NHTSA announces relatively minor changes to the rules governing how self-driving systems are developed, marketed and used in the US.

For the NHTSA:

  • Clarifies that automakers must impress upon human drivers that they are responsible for the vehicle when operating in semi-autonomous mode – probably via an on-screen message
  • Completes its investigation of Tesla’s Autopilot system and determines that the system is legal in its current form in the US
  • Makes minor recommendations to Tesla for changes to its Autopilot system to reduce the risk of misuse
  • Clarifies the expected performance of level 2 AV systems in the event that a driver fails to respond to safety alerts from the system, either through incapacity or incompetence

For Tesla

  • Very minor changes made on a software level to satisfy the recommendations highlighted by the NHTSA, likely rolled out via an over-the-air update
    o Continues development of Autopilot and Full Self-Driving systems unimpeded

For other automakers

  • Minimal impact, although some will be disappointed Tesla was not forced to make amendments to its system in the name of safety when the rest of the industry has arguably taken a more cautious approach to the rollout of level 2 AV systems

Scenario 2 – medium impact

NHTSA announces some changes to the rules surrounding the development and operation of level 2 semi-autonomous systems. These necessitate some automakers, especially Tesla, to alter their AV strategies.

For the NHTSA

  • Clarifies that, while drivers are responsible for overseeing a level 2 autonomous vehicle, automakers have a duty to ensure that the systems are designed in such a way that they prevent misuse
  • Mandates additional measures automakers must take to ensure drivers remain vigilant behind the wheel, this could include eye tracking and biometric measures beyond sensing hands on steering wheels (which can be deliberately overridden by placing a weight on the wheel)
  • Defines situations where the autonomous vehicle must restrict or deactivate the autonomous system in response to inadvertent or deliberate misuse

For Tesla

  • Company forced to roll out one or more over-the-air updates that bring eye-tracking and other monitoring technologies to cabins to ensure safe compliance from drivers
  • Deactivates some of the more experimental autonomous features, likely affecting Tesla’s Full Self-Driving system more than standard Autopilot, significantly limiting its ability to operate on surface streets
  • Perceived superiority of Autopilot over similar level 2 systems is reduced as more limits are placed on the scenarios Tesla’s system can operate in

For other automakers

  • Minimal impact, both GM’s Super Cruise and Ford’s BlueCruise already use eye-tracking technology to detect whether the driver is monitoring the road

Scenario 3 – high impact

NHTSA introduces sweeping legislation defining how AV systems can be used on the roads, and even mandates some of the sensing technologies that must be used to ensure safety in all conditions.

For the NHTSA

  • Mandates that level 2 semi-autonomous driving systems can only be used in certain situations, likely to be restricted to highway use only and forbidden from surface streets
  • Insists that AVs can only operate in semi-autonomous mode providing they heavily monitor the driver to ensure they are paying attention. Defines when and how the system must disengage when misused
  • Potentially legislates the inclusion of LiDAR or radar sensors due to shortcomings in camera-based systems such as Tesla’s approach – there would likely be self-interest accusations levelled at its leadership

For Tesla

  • Forced into costly recall to retrofit existing models with driver-monitoring tech or LiDAR sensors
  • Potentially forced to deactivate level 2 systems on some vehicles where retrofitting is not possible – it would likely need to compensate owners that paid for level 2 features but can no longer use them
  • Perceived lead in AVs wiped out overnight, plus reputational damage from systems being seen as unsafe

For other automakers

  • Again, fairly minimal changes compared to Tesla because many already employ more stringent driver monitoring systems. Some may need to invest in LiDAR sensors if they are mandated, however