Auto industry group seeks update to federal safety tests

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — An industry group representing leading automakers is urging the federal government to update crash test ratings to include modern safety technologies for the first time since 2011, the group said Tuesday. 

The New Car Assessment Program evaluates the safety of new vehicles and provides public ratings for consumers. Many have argued that the program has become less effective as the industry has outpaced regulators in safety technology and become close to meaningless for consumers, with the majority of 2020 model vehicles receiving 5-star ratings and the rest receiving 4 stars. 

This 2015 image provided by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows an illustration of a lane departure warning system, one of the technologies that an auto industry group says should be included in federal safety testing.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents the Detroit Three and other automakers selling vehicles in the U.S., recommends that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration include technology now commonly included in new vehicles in those tests. 

Forward collision warnings, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian automatic emergency braking, lane departure warnings and assistance technology for staying within lanes, and automatic high beam headlamps should all be evaluated by regulators, the group said. 

"We are moving from not only just a focus on crashworthiness, but a focus on crash avoidance, and it's important that the NCAP program do the same," said John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance. "It's really important that the NCAP program remain modern, and we think it's ideal for us to start by kickstarting this modernization with key technologies that have proven safety benefits."

NHTSA has said it plans to update the program to include similar technology and announced earlier this year, shortly before President Joe Biden took office, that it was seeking public comment on the proposed changes. 

But the Alliance recommends the agency consider including more than updated tech in its new rules: NHTSA should regularly identify new safety technologies to be included in the rating system in the long term; meet with automakers and other relevant groups annually to discuss research and development; regularly evaluate how effective the program is; and update the program every three years, like similar programs in Europe and China, the group said.

"We're taking a broader, more strategic approach," Bozzella said. "There is an opportunity to establish mid-term and long-term roadmaps, as well as a process to continually make sure that NCAP stays updated."

NHTSA did not immediately return a request for comment on the Alliance's recommendations. The group's push for more advanced technological assessments comes alongside growing calls for the program to better take into account vehicles' safety for pedestrians as well as occupants. 

Last year, the Government Accountability Office noted that pedestrian deaths had grown by 43% between 2008 and 2018, driven in part by consumers' shifting preferences for bigger pickup trucks and SUVs.

The office found that NHTSA doesn't regularly collect detailed information on pedestrian injuries and hadn't determined whether to include pedestrian safety tests in the NCAP program, despite proposing the tests be included four years earlier.

Several automakers told the accountability agency that NHTSA failed to regularly communicate with the companies on pedestrian safety tests, which made it challenging to develop vehicles that would potentially meet the standards. 

"The industry, and consumers, are generally provided little advance indication of future NCAP updates or what new elements and ratings will be adopted," the Alliance wrote in a report on the recommendations released Tuesday. 

"Given the significant lead time necessary to implement new safety technology or re-engineer existing performance, a more predictable program is needed to maximize the potential benefits of NCAP."

Twitter: @rbeggin