If you didn’t know better, you might reasonably assume Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving are the names of technologies that safely allow the car to drive itself, even though that’s not true and even though the gulf between consumer expectations and reality is dangerous and bad. It seems the new NTSB chief agrees.
Jennifer Homendy started at the NTSB this month as chairwoman, and right out of the gate, in her very first interview, she says that maybe calling semi-autonomous systems Autopilot and Full Self-Driving is bad. Well, she didn’t say that specifically, trying to stay diplomatic and all, but that’s what she meant and, to me, puts the onus where it should be: on automakers, not consumers. The interview was posted Friday by Bloomberg.
“Whether it’s Tesla or anyone else, it is incumbent on these manufacturers to be honest in what their technology does and does not do,” Homendy told Bloomberg News in her first interview since she was sworn in on Aug. 13.
Homendy, 49, a former Capitol Hill staffer who has served as an NTSB board member since 2018, went on to praise Tesla’s cooperation during multiple previous NTSB investigations and said she didn’t want to single the company out. She cited TV advertisements for various vehicles that create the false impression they are capable of steering and braking on their own when drivers must still monitor the systems. At a recent conference she attended of state highway safety officials, most said they thought some models could operate themselves.
“I was stunned,” Homendy said.
This is what happens when you call Level 2 semi-autonomous systems names like Autopilot and Full Self-Driving, which is that people will believe you, including, apparently, even highway safety officials. And while the NTSB’s primary mission is investigating crashes and issuing safety recommendations, it’s refreshing to hear a public official talk in clear terms about semi-autonomous systems but also rebuilding the NTSB itself, as it is needed probably more than ever in this era of not-space tourism.
Homendy said she plans to seek increases in NTSB’s budget so it can add staff and capacity. The safety board’s authorization by Congress, which typically sets an agency’s funding, is up for renewal next year. The amount of any requested increases hasn’t been determined yet, she said.
“The things that the public relies on — timely reports, great recommendations, what’s happened on an investigation as early as possible — that requires resources,” she said.
“We are in a time of transformational change,” she said. “But you know, I hear a lot about innovation and a lot about investment. I’m not hearing a lot about safety. That’s where we come in. Safety has to be the driver. That’s our role.”
Now, this could very easily be read as a government bureaucrat making a case for why their agency needs even more money, but the NTSB’s budget was $138 million for the latest fiscal year, and even if that were doubled, that would still amount to a drop in the bucket for the federal government as a whole. Instead, this reads more like an earnest official who wants more resources to make things safer for all of us. Imagine that.