NHTSA new head Steven Cliff: Agency will scrutinize driver assistance technology, federal standards needed

WASHINGTON — Steven Cliff, the new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says the state road safety agency will step up its efforts to understand the risks of automated vehicle technology so it can decide what regulations are needed to protect drivers, passengers and pedestrians. to protect .

In an interview, Cliff said his agency reviews crash data recently reported by automakers and tech companies.

Any new regulations the NHTSA could impose would address what critics say is urgently needed to address the growing use of driver assistance systems on American roads. The systems have been associated with fatalities and serious injuries, but they also have huge potential for accident prevention.

There are no federal regulations that directly apply to self-driving vehicles or vehicles 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 perform.

He said that when he first joined NHTSA in February 2021, he was surprised to find that the agency had no data on automated vehicle accidents. He said he insisted on demanding such reporting.

Last month, the NHTSA released data from July 2021 to May showing that automated vehicles were involved in nearly 400 accidents.

Cliff said he thinks federal standards are needed to regulate driver technology, but he wants to avoid rushing to embrace new regulations that could jeopardize safety.

“Every time we put a regulation on the books, we not only have to define what standard that technology must be held to, but we also have to have an objective way to measure the performance of the system to make sure it actually complies. to regulations,” he said.

Cliff said the agency is also working on performance standards for automatic emergency braking, which it plans to require for all new passenger cars and heavy trucks. The braking systems, which can detect and stop pedestrians, other vehicles and obstacles, show great potential to help curb the rising number of road deaths across the country, he said.

He said the NHTSA will set standards to measure how the braking systems detect objects to ensure the systems respond appropriately.

Cliff declined to discuss details of the regulations that could come.

Of the nearly 400 crashes reported by manufacturers, Teslas were involved in more than all other automakers combined. But Cliff noted that Tesla has driver-assistance technology that works on nearly all of its approximately 830,000 vehicles on U.S. roads, making neat comparisons with other automakers difficult. The company also offers near-instant wireless crash reporting, so it receives data faster than other automakers.

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

Cliff said Tesla has partnered with NHTSA.

Cliff, 52, whose background is in chemistry and air pollution regulation with little experience in automotive safety, is taking over the agency at a critical time. The NHTSA estimates that nearly 43,000 people died on U.S. roads last year, the most in 16 years.

Safety advocates say the NHTSA has become more aggressive in regulating automakers since Cliff’s arrival of the California Air Resources Board, that state’s pollution regulator. Cliff, who has a doctorate in chemistry from the University of California, San Diego, and joined the California board of directors in 2008 as an air pollution specialist, rose to assistant directorship.

He said he had to become a quick study on car safety. But he said assessing the science and data is similar to the work he did in California.

In December, Cliff told the Senate Commerce Committee that he would work to pass regulations like those urging seat belt use and implement mandates under the new federal infrastructure law to reduce drink-driving.

He said he believes automatic emergency braking in new vehicles should help reduce fatalities and that the agency will adopt a “safe systems approach” to stem the deaths. Those approaches may include road design and reductions in speed limits.

He also said the NHTSA is trying to understand why black Americans are more likely to die in accidents than other groups.

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