Incomplete data clouds impact of hundreds of autonomous vehicle crashes

June 15, 2022

Tyson Fisher


The first batch of autonomous vehicle crash reports from the federal government is now available, but incomplete and inconsistent data collection leaves more questions than answers.

On Wednesday, June 15, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its first summary of autonomous vehicle crash reports submitted by manufacturers. NHTSA’s report is a snapshot that provides general answers to the questions of who, what, where and when crashes occurred, but it offers little insight into the questions of why and how.

The most prevalent response among the hundreds of autonomous vehicle crash reports is “unknown,” leaving questions revolving around reliability and transparency.

The Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association points out that NHTSA’s summary of the autonomous vehicle crash reports emphasizes the Association’s concerns it has shared with the agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation regarding autonomous vehicle technologies.

OOIDA appreciates NHTSA’s initiative to collect autonomous vehicle crash reports.

“The amount of crashes shows that these vehicles are not yet capable of performing as safely as a well-trained, experienced human driver,” said Jay Grimes, OOIDA’s director of federal affairs. “We agree with NHTSA’s acknowledgment that Level 2 (advanced driver assistance systems) are not designed to and are not able to perform critical operating components of the driving task. We also support NHTSA’s goal of gathering more data on all autonomous vehicles, but crashes will continue without more transparency from AV manufacturers. We believe NHTSA should expand reporting requirements throughout the development and testing processes, not just after a crash occurs. This will help federal regulators, the general public, and professional drivers better understand AV safety performance or lack thereof.”

NHTSA separated the autonomous vehicle crash reports into two documents: Level 2 autonomous vehicles and Level 3-5 autonomous vehicles.

Level 2 is the highest level of autonomy currently available to the public and includes Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” system. Level 2 technologies require the full attention of a human driver at all times. Levels 3-5 autonomy include technologies that do not require the attention of a human driver during some or all operations.

Level 2 vehicle crash injuries mostly unknown

According to NHTSA’s summary, nearly 400 crashes involving select Level 2 autonomous vehicles were reported to the federal government.

Tesla accounts for 273 of those crashes, more than two-thirds of total autonomous vehicle crash reports. In a distant second is Honda, which has reported 90 crashes since last July.

Looking at “highest injury severity” per crash, three-quarters of the autonomous vehicle crash reports have injuries listed as “Unknown,” providing little insight into the safety ramifications of the Level 2 autonomous vehicle technology. Only 11 serious or fatal crashes were reported, with nearly 50 indicating no injuries.

What are these autonomous vehicles crashing into? As with injuries, a significant portion of the autonomous vehicle crash reports, nearly 40%, lists hit objects as “unknown.” Among the reports that do list what the vehicle collided with, “other fixed object” was the most popular, with 78 total reports. More than 60 passenger cars were struck by Level 2 vehicles, as well as 13 heavy trucks. One cyclist, a tree and pedestrians were also struck by a Level 2 vehicle.

Pulling from NHTSA’s report, little insight can be gleaned from vehicle damage reported. Although 138 of the nearly 400 reports indicated “unknown” damage, the data shows around 300 reports of damage to the front of the vehicle. Reporting entities can select multiple damage areas for each report meaning. Therefore, the number of damaged areas is greater than the number of crashes.

High-level AV crash data more conclusive

Although the data reported for Level 2 vehicles is largely incomplete, Level 3-5 vehicles are still in the testing phases, allowing manufacturers to have more control over the data.

According to NHTSA’s report, there have been 130 crash reports submitted by manufacturers of Level 3-5 autonomous vehicles. Waymo submitted nearly half of those reports (62), followed by Transdev Alternative Services (34) and Cruise LLC (23). Transdev develops autonomous technology for transit vehicles. Cruise is testing its high-level autonomous vehicle technology on shuttles and Chevrolet Bolts.

More than 100 reports indicate no injuries. There is only one crash that involves a serious injury. Only eight reports list injuries as “Unknown.”

According to submitted autonomous vehicle crash reports, more than 100 of the crashes involved a collision with another vehicle. Seven crashes involved a cyclist, two with motorcycles and two more “Non-motorist: Other” collisions.

Vehicle damage to Level 3-5 autonomous vehicles suggests a different story compared to Level 2 damage data. Of the more than 300 damages reported, nearly 200 affected the rear portion of the vehicle. No further details are included in NHTSA’s report.

It is worth noting that the driving environment of Level 3-5 vehicles is incomparable to that of Level 2 vehicles. Whereas Tesla has thousands of cars being driven by consumers across the nation, all Level 3-5 vehicles are operating in controlled testing environments. Therefore, only Level 2 reports reflect real-world data, skewing the results relative to Level 3-5 data.

Take data with a grain of salt

NHTSA’s report is the first of what will be monthly reports required by a standing general order issued last year.

NHTSA’s standing general order applies to manufacturers and the companies that operate vehicles equipped with Level 2 advanced driver assistance systems or Levels 3-5 automated driving systems.

Reporting obligations in the order apply only to vehicle and equipment manufacturers and operators of these automated vehicles. The companies included are specified in the order. NHTSA says the order does not apply to individual consumers or other entities, such as vehicle dealers or drivers.

More information about that general order is available here.

NHTSA urges the public to consider the limitations of the of the autonomous vehicle crash reports when reviewing its summary.

About half of NHTSA’s summary report explains the limitations and shortcomings of the data provided by manufacturers. Some manufacturers have access to advanced reporting technology. That alone can significantly increase not only the number of reports submitted but also details within the data.

Based on the reporting criteria, there is not a lot to extrapolate from the data.

“Reporting entities are not required to submit information regarding the number of vehicles they have manufactured, the number of vehicles they are operating, or the distances traveled by those vehicles,” the reports states. “Data required to contextualize the incident rates are limited.” LL