An agency hid Tesla crash data for nearly two years. Is that any way to build trust in driverless cars?

It was an extraordinary vote of confidence for autonomous driving by the nation’s top vehicle safety agency. Two years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced crash rates for Tesla cars dropped by almost 40% after installation of a driver-assist technology called Autosteer.

“Forty percent. That was an eye-popper,” said R.A. Whitfield, director of Quality Control Systems Corp. and an expert in statistics. So “breathtaking and remarkable,” he said, that he didn’t quite believe it. “Extraordinary claims ought to be backed by extraordinary evidence.”

But when Whitfield requested the supporting data, he encountered a thick bureaucratic wall at NHTSA, the taxpayer-funded agency primarily responsible for vehicle safety in the United States. On Nov. 27, 2018, after a federal lawsuit and almost two years, NHTSA finally released the data. Whitfield was shocked. In a detailed, 25-page report issued on Feb. 8, he said the NHTSA study violated basic principles of standard research methodology to the point where no conclusion of any kind could be justified.