NTSB asks NHTSA for more self-driving car rules, citing Tesla's 'Full Self-Driving' beta

The request comes in the form of a letter from NTSB Chair Robert Sumwalt.

Kyle Hyatt Former news and features editor
Kyle Hyatt (he/him/his) hails originally from the Pacific Northwest, but has long called Los Angeles home. He's had a lifelong obsession with cars and motorcycles (both old and new).
Kyle Hyatt
3 min read

NTSB Chair Robert Sumwalt is not pleased with Tesla's Full Self-Driving beta.

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One of the things that Tesla likes to do is give the features of its cars friendly sounding, easy-to-remember names. Ludicrous mode, fart mode, and Autopilot are examples of this. For the most part, this is fine, but sometimes -- and this is the case with Autopilot -- those names can give people a false sense of confidence.

Of course, the latest and probably most egregious example of this is with the "Full Self-Driving" (FSD) option that Tesla has been pushing for years, but which has only recently been getting out into the world as a semipublic beta test. Now, Tesla boss Elon Musk has admitted to regulators that the FSD beta is really just an advanced driver-assistance system, but now some of those regulators are concerned that the lack of regulation in naming and testing these systems could be a recipe for disaster, according to a report published Friday by CNBC.

Specifically, the National Transportation Safety Board has reached out to its sister agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in the form of a letter asking it to lay down much more strict guidelines when it comes to advanced driver-assistance systems and self-driving car development and testing on public roads.

The letter, written by NTSB Chair Robert Sumwalt, calls Tesla out for testing its Level 2 ADAS system on public roads with regular drivers while calling it Full Self-Driving, stating: 

"Tesla recently released a beta version of its Level 2 Autopilot system, described as having full self-driving capability. By releasing the system, Tesla is testing on public roads a highly automated AV technology but with limited oversight or reporting requirements. Although Tesla includes a disclaimer that 'currently enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous,' NHTSA's hands-off approach to oversight of AV testing poses a potential risk to motorists and other road users."

He mentions Tesla a staggering 16 times in the letter, though the regulations he seems to be asking for would also likely directly affect other companies explicitly focused on developing autonomous vehicles (Level 4 and 5) like Cruise and Waymo.

OK, so why is the chair of the NTSB writing to NHTSA asking for help instead of doing something about it? The answer to that lies in what each organization's role is. NTSB is responsible for investigating vehicle crashes, looking for their underlying cause, and often making recommendations to the government and the auto industry based on its findings. On the other hand, NHTSA is responsible for things like vehicle crash testing, vehicle recalls and keeping the book on vehicle safety standards.

What will be the result of this letter, in the best-case scenario? Well, ideally, we'd see NHTSA change its historically hands-off position on regulating self-driving vehicle development and issue some hard and fast rules, not only about what kind of testing is allowed on public roads, but also establishing some clear nomenclature that makes it easier for customers to understand what their vehicles' ADAS systems can and can't do and prevent manufacturers from using marketing to embellish the truth about their systems' capabilities.

If you're curious about the entire contents of the letter from Chairperson Sumwalt to NHTSA, you can read it below:

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