U.S. Secretary of Transportation Teases Tesla: Autonomous Cars Still Don’t Exist


Pete Buttigieg has a lot on his plate. Being the U.S. Secretary of Transportation means he has a say on the Build Back Better plan and also the mission to recover NHTSA’s undermined credibility. In an interview with The Verge, Buttigieg avoided directly addressing Tesla, but he sent it some very clear messages. The main one is that there are no autonomous cars for sale to date, despite what companies call them. The U.S. Secretary said he will repeat this until he’s “blue in the face:” any software or system for sale today is a driver assistant, not a replacement despite “what it’s called.” That’s a clear reference to Autopilot and Full Self-Driving. NTSB’s chair Jennifer Homendy called Tesla’s naming strategy “misleading and irresponsible” in September 2021. For Buttigieg, the government has to be “crystal clear about that — even if companies are not.” Ouch! Another clear message for the EV maker was that Buttigieg’s department and the organizations it controls are “trying to avoid technology as an end in itself.” A fair example of what that means was Tesla allowing people to play video games in moving cars in the front seats. The company allowed that with a December 2020 update. The U.S. Secretary stressed that technology is not necessarily innovation. Sadly for NHTSA, it was an article from The New York Times that brought up the video game problem. The safety agency had no idea that this was happening until the media sounded the alarm. It seems, though, that NHTSA wants to change that as soon as possible. In October 2021, the safety agency questioned why Tesla had only updated its cars to deal with emergency vehicles on Autopilot. NHTSA was investigating 11 crashes involving the beta software in these circumstances when Tesla claimed to have solved it with an OTA update. According to the safety agency, the adequate procedure would have been to treat the correction as a recall. NHTSA will have a lot of work ahead. Technology experts often doubt that the government has the right tools and specialists to determine if some issues are software-related. In crashes that involve ADAS, the safety agency depends entirely on the data that companies decide to provide. To address that, Buttigieg told The Verge that they have to “build fundamentally different capabilities than we’re used to having as an agency.” The last message Buttigieg left ensured that the measures they will take from now on are not about “singling out any one company for praise or for scrutiny.” According to the U.S. Secretary, the idea is to make sure all vehicles meet “a basic standard of safety, so you don’t even have to wonder about it.” That would allow people to enjoy technology, gadgets, and features in their cars instead of worrying if they “can be trusted with your life and the lives of your children.” Amen to that.