New NHTSA Chief: Agency to Examine Automated Driver Technology | business news

By TOM KRISHER, AP Auto Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — The new head of the government’s highway safety agency says he will step up efforts to understand the risks posed by automated vehicle technology so he can decide what regulations may be needed to protect drivers, passengers and pedestrians. .

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

Any new regulation the NHTSA may impose would fill what critics say is an urgent need to address the growing use of driver-assisted systems on U.S. highways. The systems have been linked to crashes involving deaths and injuries. but they also have enormous potential to prevent crashes. There are no federal regulations that directly cover autonomous vehicles or those with partially automated driver assistance systems, such as Tesla Autopilot.

Before developing new federal standards, Cliff said, the NHTSA wants to better understand how autonomous and driver-assist technology should work.

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

He said that 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 demand such information. Last month, the NHTSA released data from July 2021 through May, concluding that automated vehicles were involved in nearly 400 crashes.

Cliff cautioned that while he believes federal standards are needed to regulate driver-assisted technology, he wants to avoid rushing into new rules that could compromise safety.

“Every time we put a regulation on the books, we have to define not only what standard that technology should be held to, but we need to have an objective way of measuring the performance of the system to ensure that it actually complies with the regulation,” he said from his post. office at the US 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 cars and heavy-duty trucks. Braking systems, which can detect and stop pedestrians, other vehicles and obstacles, show great potential to help stem the rise in traffic fatalities in the US, he said.

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

“That’s part of any of the standards that we put in place,” he said.

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

“It’s important for us to take the data that comes from those incidents, understand it better in an engineering context,” he said. “I think it’s important to move fast, but not so fast that we make a mistake.”

Of the nearly 400 crashes manufacturers reported, Teslas were involved in more than all other automakers combined. But Cliff pointed out that Tesla has driver-assist technology operating in nearly all of its roughly 830,000 vehicles on US roads, making clear comparisons with other automakers difficult. The company also provides near-instant wireless crash reporting, so you receive data faster than other automakers.

Since Cliff’s arrival, the agency has stepped up enforcement efforts targeting Tesla, including pushing for a dozen recalls since early 2021. The agency is investigating why Teslas running on Autopilot seem to crash into emergency vehicles parked along highways. And it has received more than 750 consumer complaints related to Teslas breaking unexpectedly for no apparent reason.

At the same time, Cliff added, Tesla has been cooperative with NHTSA since his arrival at the agency.

“I think we work well with them,” he said, “and when we have identified that there are risks, they have taken action, and that is appropriate.”

Cliff, whose background is in chemistry and air pollution regulation with little experience in auto safety, takes over the agency at a critical time. The agency has estimated that nearly 43,000 people died on US roads last year, the highest number in 16 years.

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

He admits that he has had to become a quick study on car safety. But he said evaluating 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 adopt regulations like those that encourage seat belt use and implement mandates under the new federal infrastructure law to reduce drunk driving.

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

In addition, he said, the NHTSA is trying to understand why African-Americans are dying in crashes at a higher rate than other groups.

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

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