Steven Cliff has resigned his post as the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and will now return to the West Coast as the new director of the influential California Air Resources Board.
Cliff spent barely three months on the job as the nation’s top automotive safety chief, leaving NHTSA again searching for a leader. The agency had gone five years without an administrator before his appointment was approved by the Senate earlier this year. NHTSA Chief Counsel Ann Carlson will take over Cliff’s duties for now, according to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
In a statement, Buttigieg thanked Cliff for his service “and his work to protect the lives of the American people by strengthening the safety of motor vehicles and reducing their emissions.”
NHTSA was left somewhat rudderless during the Trump administration, the agency’s top post one of many senior government management roles left open by the former president. But the lack of an administrator resulted in slowdowns at a time when NHTSA was facing a variety of significant issues, according to industry insiders and safety experts.
There were, for example, a number of outstanding requests to address a variety of high-tech issues. These included requests to permit the use of advanced lighting systems, as well as sideview cameras, rather than conventional mirrors.
Cliff joined NHTSA as deputy administrator in February 2021, his tenure marked by an increase in automotive safety recalls. Shortly after officially becoming administrator in early June he took on one of the most significant technology issues facing the industry: autonomous driving.
Cracking down on autonomous driving
Technology meant to keep occupants safe and ease the burden of driving was linked to a total of 392 crashes since July 2021, according to data in a study NHTSA released in June. The agency noted the data was almost certainly incomplete, however, as not all automakers were reporting such crashes.
That led Cliff to issue a “standing general order” requiring automakers to provide NHTSA with data on all fatal or otherwise serious crashes involving the use of advanced driver assistance systems, otherwise known as ADAS. The order also covered semi- and fully autonomous systems, such as General Motors’ Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving technologies.
Those Tesla systems have been linked to a series of fatal crashes, as well as other serious accidents and currently are facing dozens of NHTSA probes.
“By providing NHTSA with critical and timely safety data this will help our investigators quickly identify potential defect trends,” Cliff told reporters in June.
“Dangerous and irresponsible”
Cliff said one of his priorities would be to move forward on the stalled process of setting guidelines for the development, testing and commercial release of autonomous driving systems.
Whether Carlson stays on as Cliff’s formal replacement — which would require new Senate hearings — the next NHTSA administrator will face growing pressures to act on critical safety concerns.
Last week, former presidential candidate and longtime auto safety advocate Ralph Nader weighed in on Tesla’s FSD system, calling its use “dangerous and irresponsible,” and urging NHTSA to ban its use.
Making a return
Cliff’s move marks something of a return. He previously worked as an air pollution specialist for the California Air Resources Board.
In his new role as head of CARB, Cliff will continue to wield significant influence over the auto industry. The agency has the authority to set significantly tougher emissions standards than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has enacted — a power backed by the courts despite a push by former President Trump’s to curb that authority.
CARB now has begun implementing rules that will phase out the sale of new vehicles with internal combustion engines by 2035.