The assertion that Tesla's Autopilot features reduces airbag deployments by 40 per cent, made by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration back in January, may use faulty data and cannot be replicated by researchers, a lawsuit filed on Wednesday claims.
Photo Credit: Florida Highway Patrol
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into a May 2016 crash involving a Tesla Model S cruising in its semi-autonomous Autopilot mode, resulting in the death of the passenger.
The investigation found the crash rate for Tesla vehicles dropped nearly 40 per cent after Autosteer was installed. At the time this was deemed a big win for Tesla, as it basically implied the car's autonomous features are ultimately safe, and the fault was of the driver not paying attention.
Report highlight: “The data show that the Tesla vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation.”
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 19, 2017
However, the Quality Control Systems Corporation, a Maryland-based research group, called NHTSA's claim "surprising" as the high reduction in crashes from Autosteer installation is "extraordinary."
R. A. Whitfield, director of the corporation, pointed to the claim that crash reductions are associated with the "installation" of Autosteer, rather than the actual use of Autosteer. He said like with seatbelts, the reduction in injuries is only seen with the use of the belt, not just if it's installed in the car.
"To get the benefit of Autosteer, you need to turn it on. So shouldn't have NHTSA studied that?" Whitfield said in an interview.
Furthermore, Quality Control Systems claims NHTSA's analysis doesn't meet scientific standards because it does not allow for an assessment of statistical confidence intervals or statistical significance, all indicators pointing to how precise a finding is.
The complaint says NHTSA also did not give the data Quality Control Systems originally requested from a Freedom of Information Act request in February. Whitfield said the corporation waited until April for NHTSA to provide the requested files, but the agency still did not provide them, prompting him to file a suit.
"If the safety benefits of Autosteer are as positive as the Agency claims, why wouldn't they want independent scientists to have the data in order to replicate these extraordinary results?" Quality Control Systems states on their website.
Neither a representative from the U.S. Department of Transportation nor Tesla immediately responded to requests for comment from Jalopnik, but this story will be updated if they do.