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How Safety Reports Can Mislead

The automated driving / “driverless vehicle” industry in general, and its bright and shining star Tesla in particular, have been having a rough go of it in the media. It is thus understandable that any “good” news will be highly publicized and the “bad” news ignored or at least downplayed.

In one of our previous posts we briefly questioned Tesla’s interpretation of a puzzling statement made by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NTSB) claiming that Tesla’s highly-touted ” Autopilot/Autosteer” automated driving system had reduced accident rates by an astounding 40% when compared to Tesla vehicles without that package. In this post, the automobile accident injury lawyer at the Doan Law Firm will explain why we think this claim is not supported by fact.

Issues with the safety reports

The NHTSA “report” cited by Tesla in its 3Q 2018 Vehicle Safety Report was, in actuality, the findings of a NHTSA investigation into a fatal accident in May, 2016 involving a Tesla S Model. In that accident, the driver was killed when the vehicle’s Autopilot system failed to detect a tractor-trailer rig that was entering the highway from a side road.

That report “cleared” Tesla on the grounds that Tesla’s Autopilot/Autosteer system was not designed to detect vehicles that were approaching from the side. The NHTSA did offer mild criticism in that it suggested that Tesla stress to potential buyers that Autopilot was not a driverless technology and that drivers were still required to be alert and non-distracted when Autopilot was engaged. Tesla, of course, pounced on the “not guilty” and “40%” parts and ignored the rest.

Things seemed to be going in Tesla’s favor until someone did the unthinkable: they asked to see the data the NHTSA used to arrive at its “40%” conclusion! Care to take a guess at what happened to that request?

When R.A. Whitfield of the Quality Control Systems Corporation asked for a copy of that data, he encountered nothing but “red tape” and a “go away and leave us alone” attitude from the NHTSA. Whitfield did go away, but only long enough to file a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the NHTSA. The NHTSA lost and, about one and a half-years later, Whitfield received his data.

Quality Control Systems conducted its own analysis of the NHTSA data and produced an independent report that, to be diplomatic, found the NHTSA’s data collection and statistical analysis techniques were so flawed as to be incapable of supporting any conclusions, much less its “40% safer” claim regarding Tesla’ Autopilot/Autosteer package. For a more detailed (and mostly non-technical discussion of the Quality Control report, please follow the link given earlier in this paragraph.

Questionable areas of the reports

We would like to propose five questions that we feel must be answered:

  1. Since one of its main purposes is to compile statistics, why didn’t the NHTSB recognize that its “40%” analysis was based on “bad” data as alleged by Quality Control Systems?
  2. By extension, who at NHTSA allowed the publication of data that appears to have statistically flawed?
  3. Why did the NHTSA feel it necessary to include the “40% reduction statement” when that comment was immaterial to the task of determining if Tesla’s Autopilot/Autosteer was defective and, at least, partially responsible for the accident?
  4. Who wanted to conveniently place the “40% reduction statement” inside an accident investigation report? Tesla? The NHTSA? Someone else?

Of the eventual answers to the above questions, the possible answers to #5 are the most disturbing.

A month ago, we would have dismissed any suggestion that a government agency would bend and/or break its own rules for the financial benefit of an international corporation that it was supposedly regulating to be nothing more than another off-the-wall conspiracy theory. Until the Boeing/FAA collusion hit the news, that is.

So far, and to the best of our knowledge, the only defense of Tesla’s 3Q 2018 Vehicle Safety Report (other than Tesla’s, of course) comes from the websites of Elecktrek.co and Teslarati.com. Since both sites are unashamedly pro-Tesla, we leave the question of their “possible bias” (along with several large grains of salt) to the reader.

What to take away from these issues

As we have stated, we are not accusing Tesla, the NHTSA or anyone else of deliberately misleading the public. We are simply stating that consumers cannot make an informed purchasing decision based on information that is, basically, nothing more than a sales pitch wrapped in statistics that no one understands.

As a national personal injury law practice, we at The Doan Law Firm will be closely following developments in the automated driving industry in order to provide our clients with superior legal representation in their personal injury cases.

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