Agency Might Have Overstated Tesla Autopilot’s Safety Impact

It was an extraordinary vote of confidence for autonomous driving by the nation’s top vehicle safety agency. Two years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced crash rates for Tesla cars dropped by almost 40 percent after installation of a self-drive technology called Autosteer.

“Forty percent. That was an eye-popper,” said R.A. Whitfield, director of Quality Control Systems and an expert in statistics. So “breathtaking and remarkable,” he said, that he didn’t quite believe it. “Extraordinary claims ought to be backed by extraordinary evidence.”

But when Whitfield requested the data, he encountered a thick bureaucratic wall at NHTSA, the taxpayer-funded agency primarily responsible for vehicle safety in the United States. On Nov. 27, 2018, after a federal lawsuit and almost two years, NHTSA finally released the data.