Zoox Accidents Result In NHTSA Investigation Into Self-Driving System

Investigation comes amid increasing safety concerns over self-driving vehicle technology, which is becoming more commercially available over time.

Federal auto regulators have launched an investigation into the safety of vehicles equipped with Amazon’s Zoox Automated Driving System (ADS), following reports of accidents that occurred after the SUVs unexpectedly braked and were rear-ended, placing occupants of the autonomous vehicles at risk of serious injuries.

The Zoox accident investigation was announced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on May 10, after the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) received at least two reports of crashes involving self-driving vehicles, which may be prone to brake unexpectedly, increasing the risk of auto accidents.

The automated driving systems consist of hardware and software designed to fully control a vehicle continuously, eliminating the need for a human driver. This technology is meant to manage the vehicle in all conditions, not just for limited durations or specific situations. However, as companies continue to develop and rollout the technology, regulators have struggled to ensure the software is safe and does not cause additional risks on U.S. roadways.

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During the early stages of the Zoox investigation, the NHTSA reports it found that each of the self-driving vehicles involved in the accidents were Toyota Highlanders, that each suddenly came to a stop during daytime light conditions, and were within the Operational Design Domain.

This investigation will evaluate the performance of the Zoox Automated Driving System, focusing on the listed collisions, as well as its behavior at crosswalks around vulnerable road users, and other similar rear-end collision scenarios.

About 500 Zoox self-driving vehicles are a part of the investigation.

NHTSA’s Investigation into Self-Driving Tech

NHTSA released a report in June 2022, on a 10-month period of autonomous vehicle crashes, shedding light on both the short-term risks and long-term risks associated with this evolving technology. While autonomous vehicles hold the potential to significantly reduce nationwide accidents in the future, the report underscores immediate concerns.

During this period, driver-assist technologies were implicated in 392 crashes, encompassing full self-driving cars, autopilot, parking assist, and advanced driver-assist features. Notably, Tesla vehicles were involved in the majority of these incidents, with 273 out of the 392 crashes linked to self-driving technology. Autopilot accidents claimed the lives of six individuals, while five others sustained serious injuries, with five of the six fatalities occurring in Tesla vehicles.

A study published June 2020 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), revealed that current self-driving vehicle technology may only prevent one out of every three crashes attributed to human error. The remaining crashes present significant challenges, given factors such as speed and unpredictable driving habits.

Adding to the regulatory landscape, in July 2023, the acting administrator of NHTSA, Ann Carlson, announced the agency’s intention to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking on self-driving vehicle regulations. This initiative, known as the ADS-Equipped Vehicle Safety, Transparency, and Evaluation Program (AV-STEP), follows a report indicating that driver-assist technologies were implicated in nearly 400 auto accidents between July 1, 2021, and May 15, 2022. The majority of these accidents involved vehicles manufactured by Tesla, which represents a significant portion of U.S. vehicles equipped with autopilot or driver-assistance technology.

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