NHTSA Administrator Promises to Understand and Rule Automated Vehicle Tech

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) stayed without an administrator from January 2017 – when Donald Trump was inaugurated president of the U.S. – until May 26, 2022. That was when Steven Cliff was confirmed for the job by the Senate. In an interview with Associated Press (AP), he said he wants the safety regulator to understand and rule automated vehicle technology.
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That’s quite some progress considering what the American government had done until very recently. Critics often said that NTHSA did not have the technical skills to evaluate these systems nor the interest to do so. The tide seemed to turn when the agency named Missy Cummings as a senior advisor for safety. The Duke University professor is considered one of the leading specialists in autonomous driving tech.

One of Cliff’s first official acts was to release the results of the Standing General Order (SGO) related to crashes involving Level 2 advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and Level 4 autonomous driving systems. Tesla had most of the accidents.

Cliff told AP that Tesla may have presented bigger numbers than its competitors because half of the 830,000 vehicles it has on American roads use ADAS. He also stressed that the company presents nearly instantaneous wireless crash reports, although the data indicate that more serious collisions did not have that data readily available.

Ironically, Cliff said that he believes NHTSA works well with Tesla, something the press and customers, unfortunately, do not share. For the safety regulator to create effective regulation for these systems, it has to understand what makes them helpful and what makes them dangerous.

The NHTSA administrator said he would emphasize automatic emergency braking systems and require them in all vehicles in the U.S. soon. Although Tesla offers this system, it presents what Tesla customers already named “phantom braking,” meaning the EVs brake for no apparent reason. NHTSA is investigating that.

Cliff recognizes that the safety regulator has to be quick, but not so fast that it is more subject to mistakes. More than creating regulations for these systems to really help keep people alive, the NHTSA administrator wants to have objective measurement criteria to evaluate ADAS. That’s all safety specialists concerned with the “move fast and break stuff” philosophy wanted to hear.
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Editor's note: This article stated Steven Cliff was confirmed by the Senate as NHTSA's administrator on June 3, 2022. That was actually in May 26, 2022. The article has been corrected.

About the author: Gustavo Henrique Ruffo
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Motoring writer since 1998, Gustavo wants to write relevant stories about cars and their shift to a sustainable future.
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