Since the first autonomous vehicle was even imagined, detractors were asking – “is it safe?” Though many agree that removing human error, which accounts for the vast majority of vehicle crashes, will result in improved safety, convincing skeptics they should cede control to artificial intelligence has been challenging. This is because, in large part, we’re unsure how to define the safety of autonomous vehicles or how to measure their success. Since crashes are rare occurrences and exposure has been limited to date, some have clung to the notion of “disengagements,” or the number of times the automated vehicle gives control to the human driver, as a relevant metric to track. Indeed, some states, like California, require AV manufacturers to report all disengagements annually and calculate a “disengagements per mile” metric. However, AV developers call this statistic meaningless because it fails to consider where a vehicle drives and under what conditions.

On June 29, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) joined in the conversation when it issued a Standing General Order requiring manufacturers and operators of vehicles equipped with Level 2-5 ADAS and ADS technology to report incident data to the agency. It’s part of a multi-agency government-wide effort to level-set regulations and begin data collection as we prepare for a future of automated cars and trucks.

The order directs specific companies to report crashes, defined as any contact with another road user that results or allegedly results in any property damage, injury, or fatality. Failure to report could subject companies to fines of up to $22,992 per violation with a maximum penalty of $114M (not a typo). While the order was an opportunity for NHTSA to take a leadership role in helping to define the safety of AV’s in a more collaborative way, it may indicate that it does not intend on following the lead of other agencies, who are working on clearing the regulatory forest and listening to and working with industry leaders to make way for greater adoption of AVs. Instead, it may indicate NHTSA’s desire to begin formulating federal motor vehicle safety standards that could lock AV manufacturers into a specific path that could quell future innovation. Time will tell.