NTSB’s new chief eyes safety shake-up

Alan Levin
Bloomberg

The nation’s new chief accident investigator wants to send a message: growing public confusion over automated driving systems in the U.S. is threatening to undermine the potential safety benefits of the technology.

Jennifer Homendy took the reins as chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board one week ago, just as controversy erupted over Tesla Inc.’s so-called Autopilot. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Monday opened an investigation into car accidents involving the use of Autopilot.

“Whether it’s Tesla or anyone else, it is incumbent on these manufacturers to be honest in what their technology does and does not do,” Homendy told Bloomberg News in her first interview since she was sworn in on Aug. 13.

Jennifer Homendy in Washington on June 24, 2021.

Homendy, 49, a former Capitol Hill staffer who has served as an NTSB board member since 2018, went on to praise Tesla’s cooperation during multiple previous NTSB investigations and said she didn’t want to single the company out.

She cited TV advertisements for various vehicles that create the false impression they are capable of steering and braking on their own when drivers must still monitor the systems.

At a recent conference she attended of state highway safety officials, most said they thought some models could operate themselves.

“I was stunned,” Homendy said. “No, we do not.”

Addressing the safety of these driver assist systems is one of a “very long list” of actions Homendy plans to shake up transportation safety. She’s vowing to ask Congress to expand the staff and budget of the agency, and to put new focus on emerging technologies such as automated cars and human space flight.

“I think we have a great past,” Homendy said, “but I think we have to be future-looking.”

Homendy was staff director for Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s panel overseeing railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials before being appointed as a member of the safety board in 2018.

Robert Sumwalt, who was NTSB chairman for almost four years, stepped down June 30.

In her first address to the NTSB’s staff of almost 400 employees, Homendy said she will work with the agency’s Office of Aviation Safety to rename it within the next 100 days to reflect that it also has responsibility to investigate mishaps in commercial space travel.

“We are doing a lot, but nobody knows it,” she said of NTSB’s role in space investigations. “We need to demonstrate to our partners, to our stakeholders, that we’re ready, because we are.”

She also told staff to finalize within 60 days a draft of regulations that would update requirements governing the growing commercial space industry during an NTSB investigation.

The NTSB has investigated accidents involving commercial rockets and space vehicles for decades, including the 2014 fatal destruction of a prototype of Virgin Galactic’s space plane. But such investigations have been rare.

“I don’t want to be in a situation, God forbid, that something does happen and we don’t have adequate resources,” she said. “So I do believe this is an area we do need to expand and include additional expertise.”

Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin LLC last month both launched human passengers into the fringes of space, a first for such companies.

Virgin later announced it planned to charge $450,000 a ticket for such flights.

The need to prepare extends beyond space, Homendy said.

Whole new generations of aircraft, from unpiloted drones to robotic flying devices designed to serve as air taxis, are also expanding rapidly, and the NTSB needs to be ready for new, complex investigations, she said.

As a result, Homendy said she plans to seek increases in NTSB’s budget so it can add staff and capacity.

The safety board’s authorization by Congress, which typically sets an agency’s funding, is up for renewal next year. The amount of any requested increases hasn’t been determined yet, she said.

“The things that the public relies on — timely reports, great recommendations, what’s happened on an investigation as early as possible — that requires resources,” she said.

In the meantime, she has also asked officials at the agency to fill existing vacancies. There are about 50 jobs unfilled, or more than 12% of the existing staff, she said.

The NTSB needs a full staff to handle the growing challenges of evolving technology, Homendy said.

“We are in a time of transformational change,” she said. “But you know, I hear a lot about innovation and a lot about investment. I’m not hearing a lot about safety. That’s where we come in. Safety has to be the driver. That’s our role.”