NHTSA head who led Tesla Autopilot investigation to step down

After overseeing the investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot system over the past couple of years, the acting chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Ann Carlson, has announced plans to step down.

Carlson has been the regulator’s chief administrator since September 2022, and she emailed employees this week that she would be stepping down in cooperation with a law that limits how long officials can remain in the position, according to a report from Automotive News. NHTSA Deputy Administrator Sophie Shulman will succeed Carlson, who will return to her former position as chief counsel until the end of January before departing the U.S. auto regulator altogether.

Prior to becoming chief counsel for the NHTSA in January 2021, Carlson took a leave of absence from her previous position as one of UCLA’s environmental law professors. Throughout her time at the regulator, Carlson has also been a part of pushing stricter fuel emissions standards for gas vehicles, some of which are set to take effect next year.

Carlson recently noted that the new U.S. fuel economy standards enacted in 2024 “will save consumers money at the pump, increase our energy independence, and reduce harmful pollutants, including the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.”

The announcement of Carlson’s departure comes just after the NHTSA issued a “recall” this week requiring additional Autopilot safeguards, representing the culmination of the agency’s two-year investigation into the advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) that began in August 2021. Following the recall notice, Tesla immediately fixed the issue with the deployment of an over-the-air (OTA) update.

“One of the things we determined is that drivers are not always paying attention when that system is on,” Carlson said following the announcement of the recall.

In response to the recall, Tesla detailed its addition of stricter driver monitoring for Autopilot, writing, “The remedy will incorporate additional controls and alerts to those already existing on affected vehicles to further encourage the driver to adhere to their continuous driving responsibility whenever Autosteer is engaged, which includes keeping their hands on the steering wheel and paying attention to the roadway.”

“Depending on vehicle hardware, the additional controls will include, among others, increasing the prominence of visual alerts on the user interface, simplifying engagement and disengagement of Autosteer, additional checks upon engaging Autosteer and while using the feature outside controlled access highways and when approaching traffic controls, and eventual suspension from Autosteer use if the driver repeatedly fails to demonstrate continuous and sustained driving responsibility while the feature is engaged.”

During her time at the agency, Carlson also focused on airbag safety and an overall goal to decrease traffic deaths, along with the addition of around 50 other safety regulations. In the first nine months of 2023, U.S. traffic deaths dropped roughly 4.5 percent to 30,435 after the agency saw a drastic increase in fatalities during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a statement on Wednesday.

“While we are optimistic that we’re finally seeing a reversal of the record-high fatalities seen during the pandemic, this is not a cause for celebration,” Carlson said.

The NHTSA hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed administrator for most of the last six years. While the Biden administration nominated Carlson to continue serving in the administrator role earlier this year, the White House later withdrew the recommendation following Republican opposition to the decision. Biden has yet to announce a new choice for the position.

Tesla release notes detail remedies to address NHTSA Autopilot “recall”

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