Making Safety Standard

The Automated Vehicle Safety Consortium believes trust in automated driving won’t come until safety is absolute.

Lidar point cloud projection. (Volvo)

I’m not sure who claims to have coined the often-repeated phrase, “Safety comes standard.” But that tagline came to mind as authorities in Texas and officials with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were, at the time of this writing, sorting out what happened in the crash of a Tesla Model S near Houston on April 17. The car’s two occupants were killed – and it’s believed neither of them happened to be behind the wheel at the time of the crash.

Suspicion immediately centered on Tesla and its misleadingly named Autopilot driver-assist system. Videoed antics inside Teslas operating on Autopilot are all over Youtube and social media and it seems Tesla crashes – in which Autopilot was or may have been in operation –have increased in a frequency broadly correlating with the brand’s expanding sales volumes.

The day I wrote this column, it was reported Tesla CEO Elon Musk said data recovered from the Texas crash indicated the car’s Autopilot was not engaged. There’s a lot more investigation to come, but the incident spurred me to revisit a conversation I’d had just a couple of weeks earlier with Amy Chu (right), director of the Automated Vehicle Safety Consortium (AVSC), a program of SAE’s Industry Technologies Consortia.

The AVSC was established in early 2019 to inform and help lead to industrywide standards for advancing automated driving systems. The member companies of AVSC, says the consortium, “have long been focused on the development of safe, reliable and high-quality vehicles and are committed to applying these same principles to SAE Level 4 and Level 5 automated vehicles.” The goal is to ensure that communities, government entities and the public can be confident that these vehicles will be deployed safely.

Helping to instill confidence and trust that highly-automated vehicles are safe, Chu told me, is the consortium’s overarching mission. “We focus on Level 4 and Level 5, the SAE levels that are all fully automated,” she said, to help foster responsible development – and, ultimately, safe deployment, for fleets and at some point, passenger vehicles.

The AVSC’s seven members – Aurora, Ford, Honda, Lyft, Motional, Toyota and Volkswagen Group of America, plus SAE itself – engage the industry largely through the creation of Best Practices. And its latest, issued in March, seems particularly timely: “Metrics and Methods for Assessing Safety Performance of Automated Driving Systems.” Chu said that AVSC now is on a pace to release a new Best Practice approximately once per quarter – and that it’s trying to identify “gaps” in the AV development environment that need to be addressed. “But when we're exploring these topics and we're deciding on them,” she said, “we're never saying that we've got something new that no one's talked about. In fact, it's mostly [activity] that's going to complement what is going on with the rest of industry and leverage the good work of others.”

There’s no lack of ideas for new Best Practices, she laughs – “sometimes too many.” But she maintains the intent to keep AVSC membership purposefully small is a big boost to getting things done. And beyond Best Practices, the AVSC’s work, and often the learning of its individual members, extends into SAE Standards committees and other entities responsible for creation of critical industrywide standards.

The AVSC’s mission to foster practices and standards that advance safe testing and deployment of AV technology may never be more important. Whether or not the Texas accident happened because of fatally misplaced confidence in Autopilot, the potential impact on the public’s trust of driving automation isn’t just Tesla’s problem – it’s the industry’s problem.