By Ryan Beene, Crain News Service
DETROIT (Jan. 18, 2016) — In late 2014, Mark Rosekind had a choice: re-up for another five years on the National Transportation Safety Board or try to move the needle in two years as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Now, with a year left on that term at NHTSA, Mr. Rosekind's time is running out.
After handing out record fines against automakers and exacting strict oversight powers through consent decrees in his first year, Mr. Rosekind and his boss, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, last week turned their attention to ushering in a new paradigm for auto safety — what Mr. Rosekind calls a "proactive safety" culture — that will be well-entrenched by the time they leave office.
"When I first met Secretary Foxx, [he said] 'Mark, we're never going to get it all done in two years, but we've got to put markers down so that the path gets set,'" Mr. Rosekind recalled at the Automotive News World Congress last week. "For us, it's about getting those markers deep, so that we make sure the transformation is in place, and I don't care who's next, they can't pull them out."
Last Thursday, Mr. Foxx announced several steps that will roll out this year to remove regulatory hurdles impeding use of autonomous cars, coupled with a proposal from President Obama to spend $4 billion on autonomous-car pilot projects over the next decade.
Mr. Foxx followed with the announcement Friday of a historic safety pact with 18 auto companies designed to spur collaboration between the industry and the government — and, improbably, among the companies themselves — on improving recall procedures and other safety practices.
The initiatives illustrate the cooperative but forceful strategy Mr. Rosekind has embraced during his tenure at NHTSA and the sense of urgency he and Mr. Foxx feel as the clock winds down.
At the Automotive News World Congress, Mr. Rosekind said his final year at NHTSA would be defined by a push for autonomous vehicles and technologies that he and Mr. Foxx believe have the potential to reduce vehicle crash deaths dramatically, an emphasis on addressing the human errors that are behind 94 percent of vehicle crash deaths, and an effort to cement lasting change in the auto industry.
"NHTSA is truly successful not when we catch safety violations and hand down penalties," Rosekind said, "but when we work together with industry to prevent that kind of crisis from ever occurring in the first place."
To ease the path for autonomous vehicles and unlock their potential safety benefits, the Department of Transportation is encouraging auto makers to seek clarifications from NHTSA about whether new automated-driving technologies are allowable, and DOT expressed a willingness to grant exemptions to federal motor-vehicle standards for auto makers to field-test fleets of fully autonomous vehicles.
Mr. Foxx said NHTSA will work with states and their motor-vehicle agencies to craft a model autonomous-car policy that will work nationwide. And in six months NHTSA will issue guidance on best practices for safe autonomous vehicle operation and deployment, developed with industry input.
"A good road has a clear path and guardrails, and what I think we heard from the secretary today was a plan to help guide autonomous vehicles down a clear road with clear guardrails to help us all," said John Krafcik, CEO of the self-driving-car project at Alphabet Inc.'s Google.
Mark Reuss, General Motors Co.' global product chief, said the framework represents a departure from past government approaches to regulating automotive technologies.
He said Mr. Foxx "would rather have us on the cutting edge of technologies, coming up with ideas on how to do this and then sitting down across from the industry and the government to say 'this is what we think is the safest, best way to do this' and then having some rulemaking from that, instead of dictating a rulemaking down, which is sort of the old model."
The safety pact announced Friday seeks to shake up another "old model" of addressing safety defects that has led to record recalls and record industry fines.
The DOT and the auto companies agreed to a set of principles to instill a "proactive safety" culture and foster closer work between government and industry in auto safety.
The signatories also vowed to improve the effectiveness and use of Early Warning Reporting data to spot defects before they become massive recalls and to share tactics designed to "maximize" the number of recalled vehicles that get fixed. They also pledged to work together on auto cybersecurity issues.
The pact came together through a series of meetings between senior auto executives and DOT staff that Mr. Foxx called for in early November to address his concern that the public has "lost faith in the auto industry's commitment to safety."
Mr. Foxx announced the deal while flanked by senior executives from the companies involved. Some auto executives involved in the talks expressed mixed feelings about the new model envisioned in the agreement.
One said the deal could be "gloriously successful" if trust is established and the industry-government interactions work as advertised. Another expressed concern about potential overreach on the part of NHTSA, while a third executive said the pact reflected the reality that a new approach to safety issues is needed.
Safety and consumer advocates also expressed skepticism, suggesting that the collaborative approach was too deferential to the industry.
Former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook derided the voluntary pact as "toothless."
"There is nothing preventing the auto industry from disregarding or outright violating these principles," she said in a statement.
Harvey Rosenfield, co-founder of Consumer Watchdog, called the deal a "wrong turn" for NHTSA after years of record recalls and fines.
Mr. Rosekind told reporters last week that time will tell whether this new approach will work.
"What we'll be watching for are the outcomes," Mr. Rosekind said. "Not just talking about it, not just having events, but seeing actions going forward that change the culture of the industry."
Ryan Beene is a reporter with Automotive News, a Detoit-based sister publication of Tire Business.