There is “no way our country should tolerate 32,917 people dying on our roadways,” the new head of federal traffic safety enforcement declared during a visit to Detroit. Likening that to the crash of a fully loaded 747 “every single week,” Mark Rosekind promised to crack down on the auto industry – while also taking steps to fix problems at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The one-time head of the National Transportation Safety Board said it is time to for a complete change in the way both industry and government look at automotive safety. The focus has to be “proactive, rather than reactive,” explained Rosekind, who was sworn in as NHTSA administrator last December.
“We have a lot of catch-up to do,” stressed Rosekind, in a roundtable meeting in which he was perhaps tougher on his own agency than on the automakers it regulates.
Critics would say that’s for good reason. A recent federal auditor’s report blasted NHTSA for missing the General Motors ignition defect now blamed for more than 120 deaths. The report made 17 key recommendations – but Rosekind says his own list actually has at least 45 areas where NHTSA needs to improve its operations. And he promises to have those changes in place by the end of the year.
That doesn’t mean the agency will only focus on its own, internal problems. It recently held what Rosekind described as an “unprecedented” hearing meant to examine Fiat Chrysler’s handling of 23 separate recalls. Finding major problems, NHTSA now expects to announce specific actions it will take against FCA by the end of this month, Rosekind announced.
That could include hefty fines, but NHTSA might also seek additional steps, such as a monitoring program meant to improve the handling of safety problems at Fiat Chrysler in the future. The safety chief also suggested NHTSA might seek to have FCA divert some of any fine it levies into a consumer safety program.
Rosekind also warned that NHTSA may go back and look at how Fiat Chrysler handled other recalls.
The administrator spent much of his time during an hour-long session with reporters talking about the role “bleeding edge” technology will likely play in improving automotive safety. But he stressed that part of his challenge will be finding ways to encourage innovation while also ensuring that it works. “Bring us the data,” he challenged manufacturers.
There has, for one thing, been talk of NHTSA mandating the use of forward collision warning systems that data show can reduce crashes. Rather than setting specific requirements, however, Rosekind revealed that the government expects to revise its NCAP – or New Car Assessment Program in the near future.
These days, noted Rosekind, virtually all vehicles on the road achieve a four- or five-star rating, “so, it’s time to raise the benchmark.” And vehicles might soon be rated according to the type, and capabilities, of anti-crash technology they come with.
(Feds aim for “more muscular” auto safety oversight. For more, Click Here.)
That would not be a unique move, however. Forward collision warning technology is now a requirement for a vehicle to get a Top Safety Pick Plus rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Rosekind said he is particularly optimistic about the long-term potential of self-driving vehicle technology. He will, in fact, be the keynote speaker at an autonomous vehicle conference on Tuesday. But he cautioned there are plenty of challenges ahead before the technology can go from prototype testing to the real world.
And, among other things, he said NHTSA and Congress will have to re-examine their own roles in the development process. “We are trying to figure out if innovation will run up against regulations,” he explained.
(Click Here for details about how the feds plan to punish FCA for safety lapses.)
Manufacturers like Nissan, General Motors and Tesla have promised to begin rolling out autonomous technology over the next few years, but it could be 20 to 30 years before all vehicles are capable of hands-free driving, and that could create some real challenges, Rosekind said. Indeed, Google has acknowledged its autonomous prototypes have so far been involved in 14 crashes, all supposedly caused by the other driver.
Nonetheless , “The first time a self-driving car hits somebody, and someone gets hurt or is fatally injured, we’re going to get the phone call,” said Rosekind.
Separately, Rosekind noted that NHTSA has so far evaluated tests of about 40,000 airbag inflators produced by Takata – the Japanese supplier now blamed for the recall of 40 million vehicles worldwide. So far, a little less than 1% of those older bag systems failed under controlled lab testing. And about “70 to 80%” of those failures involved airbags from vehicles used in Florida.
(To see more about the criticism of NHTSA’s performance, Click Here.)
While a precise cause of the Takata problem has yet to be found, the issue has been linked to vehicles operating in states with especially high humidity.