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Washington — Democratic members of the U.S. House questioned Wednesday whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is capable of effectively regulating the nation’s auto industry at a time when self-driving cars are beginning to hit highways.

They noted during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that President Donald Trump has not nominated a candidate to run NHTSA on a full-time basis in over a year, and they said the agency has been caught flat-footed in previous high-profile auto investigations.

“There are legit concerns that NHTSA is not prepared and is not keeping up with the quickly changing automotive industry,” U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said. “It’s troubling that NHTSA doesn’t have the resources, people or expertise it needs to fulfill its mandate. It’s also concerning that the administration clearly does not see this agency as a priority as we have yet to hear about a possible nomination for the role of NHTSA administrator.”

Pallone added: “Investigations by this committee have demonstrated how ill-prepared NHTSA is today. During this committee’s investigation of sudden intended acceleration, we learned that NHTSA did not have expertise in emerging technologies, with little to no electrical or software engineers on staff. Then during the ignition switch investigation, we found that NHTSA did understand the link between the power-mode status and the air bag system.”

The Trump administration has appointed nominees who were confirmed by the U.S. Senate this week for the Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which also fall under the U.S. Department of Transportation. But he has left the position at the helm of NHTSA unoccupied since taking office in January 2017.

Trump included $914.7 million for NHTSA in his proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year, an increase from the $905.2 million budget that it’s currently operating under.

Acting NHTSA Administrator Heidi King defended the Trump administration’s commitment to auto safety, telling lawmakers that “NHTSA is acting on its mission of saving lives, preventing injuries and reducing economic costs.

“As the automotive transportation landscape is changing at a rapid pace, NHTSA is adapting our mission execution to assure safety while remaining in step with changing technology, addressing new and emerging risks, and encouraging industry innovation,” King said. “Safety is, safety remains the Department of Transportation’s top priority.”

Republicans on the panel struck more conciliatory notes toward NHTSA. They noted that the House has passed legislation to set rules for self-driving cars, which lawmakers hope will work in conjunction with NHTSA’s voluntary guidelines.

“With the record number of traffic fatalities on the rise – increasing to more than 37,000 in 2016, it remains critical to evaluate NHTSA’s efforts to keep our nation’s roadways and vehicles safe,” said U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“A generation from now we’ll look back if our Self-Drive Act gets into law and collision-avoidance gets into law and point out these figures, they’ll say ‘What a bunch of barbarians. You drove yourselves? How did you text ?’” Walden added.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said NHTSA will have to strike a delicate balance when it comes to regulating self-driving cars, which she said “have the promise to save lives, decrease congestion, and improve access to mobility service for seniors and the disabled, if we get the policy right.

“To be competitive, we’ve got to make sure we’ve got a flexible framework to that’s going keep up with the changing technology and we’ve got to make sure we’re staying at the forefront of innovation technology and that we’re developing it here and not in China or India,” Dingell said. “At the same time we’ve got to make sure that safety is always number one.”

King pointed out that U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has already released one set of voluntary guidelines for self-driving cars since taking office in 2017, and King said she has already promised to unveil an updated version this year.

“We at NHTSA are excited by the benefits automated technologies can bring to safety, mobility and the efficiency of our transportation networks,” she said, “and we look forward to hearing from the public, members of Congress and industry in the coming months on how we can further reduce barriers to accelerate the safe deployment of potentially life-saving technologies.”

klaing@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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