NHTSA pick faces tough questions on recalls, robot cars

Keith Laing

Washington — President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was questioned Wednesday about the safety agency’s handling of the Takata air bag recall, plans by the White House to relax stringent emission standards for new cars – and what NHTSA is doing to prepare for self-driving cars.

In a sometimes contentious nomination hearing, senators who sit on the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee peppered Heidi King about her oversight of the recall of defective Takata air bag inflators that can explode with deadly force. King has been serving as deputy administrator at NHTSA for seven months.

“A report done by the minority staff on this committee issued just last Friday shows that there are still 1.3 million vehicles out there with those defective Takata air bags, which is nothing more than a ticking time bomb,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. “Just in the state of Florida, three people are dead. Eighty-three people are injured. And that’s just one state.”

Exploding Takata air bag inflators have been linked to at least 15 deaths and more than 275 injuries in the United States. At least twenty-two have died worldwide.

Nearly 50 million Takata inflators have been recalled in the U.S., making it the largest automotive safety recall in U.S. history. Another 20 million faulty air bags in newer cars are expected to be called back in the next couple of years. NHTSA has said only 22.9 million of the 50 million air bags recalled by March 30 have been repaired.

King, who came to NHTSA with a private sector background as global director of environmental health and safety risk at GE Capital, told lawmakers that she is “meeting with each of the auto manufacturers to go through their detailed plans to complete an effective recall and replacement of each and every one of these air bags.”

However, she questioned whether NHTSA will have the legal authority to compel them to release public plans for fixed faulty air bags, nothing that some of the information about fixes for specific models could be proprietary.

“Within the constraints of law, I realize with manufacturers and with private enterprises there may be confidential business information or other information that they would either not be allowed, or should not release,” King said.

Her answer was insufficient for Nelson.

“This is life and death of the American automobile drivers and passengers,” he said. “Why is that such a difficult question for you to say ‘Yes, I’m going to ask them? I’m going to ask them, I'm going to commit to push them to come out with a public plan to finish up these 1.3 million bags.’”

Other senators questioned King on NHTSA’s role in the Trump administration’s effort to prepare for the advent of self-driving cars.

“It’s clear that autonomous vehicles hold great promise for reducing crashes, deaths and injuries on our nation’s highways,” U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said. “However, during the 2016 Los Angeles Auto Show, an AV couldn’t operate because it couldn’t read faded lane markings on the road. It seems that significant upgrades might be needed on our nation’s roads to support these vehicles, so what is NHTSA doing to ensure that our infrastructure is ready for AVs, and will you collaborate with other agencies to ensure necessary upgrades before AV’s are widely deployed?”

King said NHTSA released a set of voluntary guidelines for self-driving cars in September 2017 that would “allow for transparency into how each of the manufacturers are assuring safety, to make sure that the manufacturers and developers ensure that they’re not crashing into things, protect the occupants, get where they are going and obey traffic laws.

“It’s important to remember that there are no automated driving systems or self-driving cars sold in America today,” King said. “This is a technology which is being developed and tested.”

Hassan also pressed King to state her position on climate change, noting that the NHTSA administrator will play a big role in setting new gas mileage standards for model years 2022 to 2025 if the Trump administration is successful in its effort to roll back current rules requiring automakers to achieve a fleetwide average of more than 50 miles per gallon by then.

Hassan said, “It’s an important issue to NHTSA, to the administrator role, because if confirmed you will be dealing with various issues including CAFE standards that will require you to strike a balance between industry needs and the needs of our country and our environment. So do you agree with the scientists and experts who overwhelming agree that human-caused climate change is real and needs to be addressed?”

King responded: “I agree that it’s very important for experts to speak on the issue, I apologize I’m not a climate scientist, but I have great respect for the discipline and will listen to them.”

The answer was insufficient for Hassan.

“I’m not a climate scientist, either, and I’m very comfortable saying that the overwhelming amount of evidence that I read and have read over the course of both as a private citizen and as a public servant not only suggests, but confirms that climate change is real,” she said. “I’m a little bit concerned, and I think other people will be too, that you seem unwilling to confirm that the evidence is there.”

Republicans on the panel were more conciliatory. The committee’s chairman, U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said King “has demonstrated leadership and innovation in executing the agency’s important mandate of improving highway safety, and I am pleased that she has been nominated to head this important agency.”

The panel did not vote on the nomination Tuesday, but has scheduled an executive session for May 22 to do so. If approved by the Senate Commerce Committee, the nomination will have to confirmed by the full Senate.


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing