U.S. to unveil change to 5-star safety ratings

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the Obama administration will unveil a change in its five-star New Car Assessment Program on Thursday that awards cars and trucks up to five stars in crash tests.

NHTSA may be announcing that it will include on new vehicle stickers whether vehicles have automatic braking systems to avoid frontal collisions — but the agency has no plans to immediately require automakers to include the advanced technology features. The agency has been considering a number of significant changes to the rating system since 2013.

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said in an interview Wednesday that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will make a pair of technology-related announcements Thursday about “some data and some other announcements about the five-star system.”

Rosekind said NHTSA hasn’t decided whether to move forward with setting regulations that would mandate all vehicles have frontal collision avoidance systems. “I am going to emphasize that everything’s on the table,” Rosekind said.

Rosekind disclosed the planned announcement in a speech at the SAE Government/Industry meetings in Washington on Wednesday. “Look for innovation in (the NCAP) program. I think that is one of the most effective successful programs that NHTSA has and I would love to see that be a showcase for the kind of innovation that we are going to enact over the next two years.”

In May 2013, then NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said he planned to decide by the end of 2013 whether to require future vehicles to have automatic braking systems to prevent forward collisions. The agency missed the self-imposed deadline.

Many new vehicles that have automatic braking or dynamic braking “are able to sense an impending crash and either apply the brakes for the drivers if they fail to do so, or are smart enough to know when the driver is not applying enough braking force and supplement the braking force to avoid or mitigate the collision,” NHTSA said in 2013.

The sensor-based technology can detect a forward crash with another vehicle or pedestrian before it occurs, by alerting the driver to take corrective action or automatically applying brakes.

The systems show great promise to save hundreds — if not thousands — of lives by warning inattentive drivers before they hit a car ahead, or alerting them they are about to go off the road — or intervening to prevent crashes. Those types of wrecks account for 60 percent of fatal highway accidents, and the new technology could substantially reduce them.

“NHTSA believes it has the capabilities — and the responsibilities — to estimate the effectiveness of these crash-avoidance systems, without waiting for years or crash data, in order to make regulatory decisions and save more lives,” Strickland told Congress in 2013.

The Detroit News reported in January 2014 that many automakers think NHTSA would propose adding automatic braking to the advanced features it highlights in its New Car Assessment program.

In April 2013, NHTSA also said it was considering new vehicle safety ratings that would help older people and families

NHTSA last revised its “Stars on Cars” program in 2010, giving drivers a single overall score for the first time. It added information on whether autos have advanced safety features, such as lane-departure and forward-collision warning systems.


U.S. urges Google to focus on safety

The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants search engine Google Inc. to ensure that autonomous cars it plans to test later this year are safe.

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said he’s told Google to think about safety when it tests and builds its self-driving cars.

“Take the same really great creative thinking that you put in your technology and put it into safety. What can you do with all that brain power that you are putting on the car driving side and put into safety? Show me something new and different in innovation there,” Rosekind told The Detroit News on the sidelines of an SAE meeting in Washington. “You have to have innovation and safety together.”

Last week, the head of Google’s self-driving car program told reporters that the company doesn’t need NHTSA’s approval to begin road tests of fully autonomous vehicles in states like California.

The company plans to test a fleet of prototype fully autonomous vehicles later this year.

David Shepardson