New head of NHTSA: an agency tasked with reviewing automatic driver technology



NHTSA Administrator Steven Cliff during an interview with The Associated Press, Wednesday, June 29, 2022 in Washington. (AP Photo/Dan Huff)


The new head of the government’s road safety agency said he would step up efforts to understand the risks posed by automated vehicle technology so he could decide what regulations are needed to protect drivers, passengers and pedestrians.

In an interview on Wednesday, Steven Cliff, who was confirmed as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last month, said the agency was evaluating crash data recently reported by automakers and technology companies.

Any new regulations NHTSA might impose would fill what critics see as an urgent need to address the growing use of driver assistance systems on American roads. The systems have been linked to accidents involving death and serious injury, although they also have enormous potential for preventing accidents. There are no federal regulations that directly cover self-driving vehicles or those with partially automated driver assistance systems such as Tesla’s Autopilot.

Before developing new federal standards, Cliff said, NHTSA wants to better understand how the new technology should work.

Cliff spoke to The Associated Press on Wednesday in his first official interview since being confirmed by the Senate.

He said when he first joined the agency in February 2021, he was surprised to find that NHTSA had no data on automated vehicle crashes. As a result, Cliff said, he challenged the agency to require such reports. Last month, NHTSA released data from July 2021 through May, finding that automated vehicles were involved in nearly 400 crashes.

Cliff warned that while he thinks federal standards are needed to regulate driver-assisted technology, he wants to avoid rushing to pass new rules that could potentially compromise safety.

“Every time we put a regulation on the books, we not only need to define what standard that technology should be held to, but we need to have an objective way to measure the performance of the system to make sure it actually complies. regulations,” he said from his office at the Department of Transportation headquarters in Washington.

The agency, Cliff said, is also working on performance standards for automatic emergency braking, which it plans to require on all new passenger vehicles and heavy trucks. Braking systems, which can detect and stop pedestrians, other vehicles and obstacles, have great potential to help stem the rise in road deaths in the United States, he said.

NHTSA, he said, will establish metrics on how well braking systems detect objects to ensure the systems respond appropriately.

“It’s part of all the standards we put in place,” he said.

Cliff declined to discuss details of any regulations that may be forthcoming.

“It’s important for us to take the data that comes from these incidents, to better understand it in an engineering context,” he said. “I think it’s important to act quickly, but not so quickly that we are wrong.”

Of the nearly 400 crashes reported by automakers, Teslas have been involved in more than all other automakers combined. But Cliff noted that Tesla has driver-assist technology working on nearly all of its roughly 830,000 vehicles on U.S. roads, making clean-line comparisons with other automakers difficult. The company also provides nearly instantaneous wireless accident reporting, so it receives data faster than other automakers.

Since Cliff’s arrival, the agency has stepped up enforcement efforts targeting Tesla, including a dozen recalls since the start of 2021. The agency is investigating why Teslas working on Autopilot appear to be s crash into emergency vehicles parked along highways. And it has received more than 750 consumer complaints involving Teslas unexpectedly braking for no apparent reason.

At the same time, Cliff added, Tesla has cooperated with NHTSA since joining the agency.

“I think we work well with them,” he said, “and when we identified there were risks, they took action, and that’s appropriate.”

Cliff, 52, who has a background in chemistry and air pollution regulation with little experience in car safety, takes over as head of the agency at a critical time. NHTSA estimated nearly 43,000 people were killed on US roads last year, the highest figure in 16 years.

Safety advocates say NHTSA has become more aggressive in regulating automakers since the arrival of Cliff from the California Air Resources Board, the state’s pollution regulator. Cliff, who joined the California board in 2008 as an air pollution expert, became its deputy chief executive. Years earlier, he earned a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in chemistry from the University of California, San Diego.

He concedes it must have become a quick study in car safety. But he said the science and data assessment is similar to work he’s done in California.

In December, Cliff told the Senate Commerce Committee that he would work to pass regulations such as those that encourage seatbelt use and that he would implement mandates under new federal law. on infrastructure to reduce drink-driving.

He said he believed automatic emergency braking in new vehicles should help reduce fatalities and that the agency would take a “safe systems approach” to stem fatalities. These approaches could include road design and reduced speed limits.

Additionally, he said, NHTSA is trying to figure out why black Americans are dying in crashes at a higher rate than other groups.

“In some cases,” Cliff said, “a lot of it is infrastructure, but also the vehicles themselves. So improving the new fleet of vehicles is part of the solution, but it’s also important that we educate drivers.”


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