NHTSA official who oversaw GM ignition recall leaving

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The man who headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during General Motors 2014 recall crisis and prodded automakers to move faster on safety issues is leaving the auto safety agency, The Detroit News has learned.

NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman — who ran the agency for nearly all of 2014 on an acting basis — is leaving Friday to become a senior U.S. Energy Department official in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the agency confirmed Thursday.

During his tenure, U.S. automakers last year recalled a record setting 63.95 million vehicles — more than twice the previous record. Friedman repeatedly clashed with airbag manufacturer Takata Corp. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV — urging them to move faster on safety issues. He also urged GM to move faster on safety issues.

Friedman’s departure comes as the new NHTSA chief, Mark Rosekind, has pledged to restructure the safety agency amid criticism in a new government audit and from Congress.

In recent weeks, two high-level NHTSA officials retired, its general counsel moved to a new position in the government and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx named a three-person expert team to assist the agency in its restructuring.

“David stepped up to lead NHTSA at a time of tremendous challenge for the agency. Under his guidance, NHTSA developed many of the enforcement approaches that have helped strengthen the agency’s oversight of the auto industry, including a record $126 million in civil penalties in 2014, exceeding the total collected in the previous four decades. NHTSA, DOT and the driving public have benefited from his service, and so will the Department of Energy,” Foxx said Thursday.

Friedman — a long-time advocate of more fuel efficient cars at the Union of Concerned Scientists who joined the administration in May 2013— was thrust into GM’s safety crisis just weeks after taking over on an interim basis after NHTSA Administrator David Strickland resigned.

In February, GM recalled 2.59 million older cars that it said were initially linked to 13 deaths. The disclose sparked a firestorm on Capitol Hill and around the country.

The Justice Department launched a criminal investigation into GM’s conduct and Congress held a series of hearings on auto safety issues. GM's independent compensation fund has now approved awards in 124 deaths related to the ignition defect.

Friedman became a public face of the agency — appearing at a Justice Department press conference when Toyota Motor Corp. was fined a record $1.2 billion after being charged with a felony and when NHTSA imposed a record-setting $35 million fine against GM.

"It has been a true honor and privilege to work with the people of NHTSA to make a real difference in safety for all who share America’s roads. I leave knowing that NHTSA will continue to take automotive safety to new levels,” Friedman told The Detroit News, saying he “excited about the opportunity to continue serving the Administration and the American public at the Department of Energy.”

The EERE office has about a $2 billion annual budget and works to boost advanced technologies like fuel cell, bioenergy, wind, water, geothermal and vehicle technologies.

Rosekind also praised Friedman: “David has contributed his leadership, knowledge and experience to NHTSA and its safety mission. He has been an invaluable resource, helping me learn about the agency and our work, and all of us at NHTSA owe him thanks for his service during one of the agency’s toughest times..”

Still Friedman had some tough moments during his tenure.

Last fall, NHTSA suffered a series of missteps after it warned consumers about a recall of Takata air bags by 10 major automakers. The agency issued a press release misstating what vehicles were covered by air bag recalls and the number of vehicles covered. The following day it issued a new release that also misstated the total number of vehicles covered.

At a congressional hearing in September, Friedman repeatedly sought to place the blame squarely on GM. While key senators agreed that GM bore the primary responsibility, they faulted the auto safety agency for failing to connect the dots .

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, said NHTSA had "serious deficiencies" that needed to be corrected. She raised her voice as she and others repeatedly prodded Friedman to take responsibility.

"It appears that you are digging yourself a hole and saying we did nothing wrong, we did it all right, there was not a problem, this is all GM's fault," she said,. "You didn't figure it out — and why you cannot take a measure of responsibility for that at this hearing has frankly got us all scratching our heads.... You want to obfuscate responsibility rather than take responsibility. ... We need some admission that this was not done right."

Friedman acknowledged that the agency in retrospect could have done better, but passed up requests to apologize to families who lost loved ones. "There are clearly things looking back as an agency where we need to approve," Friedman said. "Can we do more? Do we need to invest more? Do we need to improve our processes? Absolutely."

Friedman quietly joined NHTSA in May 2013. His appointment, administration officials said then, was to ensure the landmark 54.5 mpg fuel efficiency standards by 2025 remained on track.

Friedman was a key figure in pushing a plan to require future vehicles to be able to communicate with each other -- and issued a proposal to begin the process of requiring the technology in future vehicles. Under Friedman, NHTSA forced the largest-ever child seat recall in U.S. history and proposed the first-ever side impact test for child restraint systems and finalized motor coach seat belt rules.

Last year, Fiat Chrysler bowed to government pressure on recall issues raised by Friedman and Takata in May agreed to declare air bags defective in 32 million vehicles. Friedman -- who was on center stage for most of 2014 on safety issues -- stood in the back of the room to watch the announcement by Rosekind and Foxx.