NHTSA must do more to hold companies accountable, update 5-star rating program


Consumer Reports recently said that emails and other government documents released publicly for the first time show failures by Tesla regarding its safety claims and the performance of Autopilot, and the documents reveal that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) must do more to ensure investigations are transparent, and ensure companies communicate responsibly with the public about crash ratings.

The documents show that NHTSA has subpoenaed information from Tesla about crashes involving its Autopilot driver-assist system, and, separately, the agency sent Tesla a cease-and-desist letter to say the agency had become aware of “misleading statements” made by the company about the Tesla Model 3’s safety ratings. The documents also show that NHTSA has referred Tesla’s safety claims to the Federal Trade Commission and asked the FTC to investigate whether these claims violate laws against deceptive commercial practices.

David Friedman, Vice President of Advocacy for Consumer Reports, said, “We have repeatedly called for an investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assist system.  It can’t dependably navigate common road situations on its own and fails to keep the driver engaged behind the wheel. The newly public data only reinforces those concerns.”

Friedman has previously served as both Deputy and Acting Administrator of NHTSA.

Friedman said, “It’s good that NHTSA is digging into the safety of the Autopilot system, but the agency needs to make these investigations public, for transparency’s sake, and to put added pressure on Tesla to fix the system’s flaws. It shouldn’t take a Freedom of Information Act data dump to know what’s going on here.

“These documents also show that NHTSA told Tesla to stop making ‘misleading statements’ about the agency’s crash safety ratings, and that Tesla refused to comply, flouting NHTSA’s authority. In response, NHTSA could simply remove the related safety ratings to help mitigate the confusion Tesla is creating for consumers,” Friedman continued. “This is another reminder that an update to NHTSA’s five-star safety ratings system is long overdue. DOT leadership should take the 2015 proposal out of neutral so consumers can get the information they need on the safety of new vehicles, especially with the proliferation of crucial driver assistance technologies like automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, and blind spot warning.”

In May, Consumer Reports called for immediate changes to the Tesla AutoPilot system and for a NHTSA defect inquiry after the preliminary results of an National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation of a March 2019 fatal crash. In February, Consumer Reports announced it could no longer recommend the Tesla Model 3 due to owners’ reports of problems with paint, trim, and electronics.