The NHTSA Report Exonerating Tesla Should Terrify the Auto Sector

Tesla’s headlong rush just became a three-year head start.

Last week’s National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) report on Joshua Brown’s fatal Autopilot accident does a lot more than exonerate Tesla. It’s a stamp of approval for Tesla’s entire ecosystem and rollout strategy, from Autopilot to data gathering to wireless updates.

Legacy auto makers should be terrified.

As futurist Brad Templeton points out, NHTSA’s report is so favorable to Tesla, it’s hard to believe it was written by the same government agency whose letter to George Hotz compelled him to cancel the Comma One, the only other semi-autonomous driving technology to approach Tesla’s as of 2016.

NHTSA investigator Kareem Habib dismantles every argument critics and competitors have been firing at Tesla since Autopilot was released in October of 2015. The report is explicit: the Tesla crash rate declined 40% after Autopilot’s release. Tesla’s safety technologies are not defective. Tesla is clear about driver responsibility. Tesla provides clear engagement and disengagement alerts.

Tesla should hire Habib. So should Faraday. This guy knows his way around defending autonomy.

Any hopes the legacy automakers might have had that regulators would throttle or halt Tesla’s progress are now shattered. What appeared to be Tesla’s headlong rush toward autonomy is now a three year head start. Why? Because the old guard were so skeptical of self-driving cars—and so terrified of being the first one to have a fatality with a car even temporarily in control—that they ceded the first round of the autonomy wars to Tesla without a fight.

Get into the best BMW, Audi or Mercedes as of January 2017 and what do you find? ADAS—or an Advanced Driver Assistance System—which is right below what NHTSA calls Level 2 automation. Comprised of Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB), Active Cruise Control and basic Lane Keeping Assistance (LKAS), ADAS is the coward’s Level 2, the functional limit of companies with some of the technology but none of the ambition or legal courage of Musk.

While the CEOs in Germany, Detroit and Japan heeded their engineers and lawyers, Musk decided to push to real Level 2 by enabling Autosteer sixteen months ago. Autosteer—the LKAS component of the Tesla’s Autopilot—was the first such system to allow for hands-off operation for more than thirty seconds.

In good conditions, it would function a LOT longer. It wasn’t fully autonomous. That’s Level 4. You still had to be ready to take over any time. But it sure felt like a self-driving car, even if only for a couple of minutes.

Most importantly, Autopilot didn’t meander across lanes. It worked, or it didn’t. That confidence ushered in the popularity of autonomous driving, even if the technology is only semi-autonomous for now. Owners want to use it. Many people buy Teslas specifically because of it.

You want to know fear? Try Mercedes’ Drivepilot. There’s a reason competitors bury talk of their semi-autonomous technology.

What was the industry thinking? They assumed anything between ADAS and Level 4 was too difficult to develop and too dangerous to deploy. They assumed Tesla would prove them right, and take the entire electric/autonomous/direct-sales model down with it. And they were wrong.

While the old guard were testing small fleets of self-driving cars in fake towns hoping to jump to Level 4 someday, Tesla was gathering billions of miles of data in the real world and marching up the autonomy ladder the hard way.

Take a look at the top of the NHTSA report under “population”. It refers to 43,781 Teslas manufactured between 2014 and 2016, which is only a subset of the 135,000+ Teslas on the road today with Autopilot hardware. That first generation hardware consisted of merely one radar unit, one camera, and an array of ultrasonic sensors.

That hardware is already commoditized, and a new E-class has more of it, but in a Tesla it’s weaponized. Combine it with wireless updates and you have what Tesla calls Fleet Learning. Every Tesla is gathering data, sharing it back to Tesla’s cloud, and being wirelessly updated as quickly as Tesla can process and validate it.

Why aren’t traditional automakers doing this? They’re talking about it. They claim they will. But the same excuses always come back. Security. Hacking. Dealer franchise agreements. Privacy. And yet somehow Musk has made wireless updates work. Does it really take a rocket scientist to figure this out? Even the NHTSA report acknowledges the power and superiority of wireless updates, highlighting Tesla’s 8.0 update that shortened the hands-off interval and improved disengagement alerts.

While competitors dither, Tesla has successfully shattered not only the electric car and direct sales models, but the traditional recall and safety models. Even if Tesla Autopilot had been defective, what would be the point of recalling cars whose software is several generations past the alleged flaw?

The traditional recall model is unconscionable. Even if Mercedes had data identical to Tesla’s, if one has to go to a dealer for an update, some minority of people won’t get the letter, or understand the importance of the letter, or bother to go. If less than 100% of recalled cars are updated, the system is broken.

When hardware is commoditized, software is everything. But a successful software implementation isn’t solely based on the code. Software exists in a system. Without updates, maintenance and a consistent supply of good input, it’s dead weight and dead code. Garbage in, garbage out. Cars need to be connected, if only for the safety of autonomy.

How long can Tesla maintain their lead? As long as it takes for the industry to realize that self-driving cars aren’t everything. It may take decades for Level 4 cars to become ubiquitous, even in major urban areas. In the meantime, semi-autonomous tech like Tesla Autopilot will make human driving safer while Level 4 percolates.

All of this requires data. Mountains of data. Tesla and Waymo are far in the lead. Following Tesla requires doing what Tesla did, the hard way, in a bigger way, starting now. Install sensors. Gather data. Bypass sclerotic models. Process. Catch up. You don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to know that if Tesla’s got 135,000+ Autopilot-equipped cars on the road as of January 24th, 2017, it will take X number of years to sell Y cars and catch up. Every day lost is a day’s advantage given to Tesla, who claim they will have Level 4 by 2018. The industry is saying 2021 or later. Even if Musk is late, he’ll be first.

Or maybe the old guard can cut a deal with Waymo, the only company besides Tesla to take data gathering seriously. They're even building self-driving hardware, a nice one-stop shop for anyone falling behind. Of course, CEO John Krafcik may seem nice, but he wants to own that data. No legacy manufacturer is going to like that.

But that’s another story.

Alex Roy is Editor-at-Large for The Drive, author of The Driver, and set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in 31 hours & 4 minutes. You may follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.