NHTSA poised for big auto industry announcements

Paul A. Eisenstein
Special to The Detroit News

In an industry normally known for the way automakers and government regulators routinely clash, a new, more cooperative era may be falling into place with several major announcements set to come this week and later in the month.

The results could be safer, more advanced cars, trucks and crossovers — including a new generation of autonomous vehicles — coming to dealerships faster than ever, in many cases without the need for Washington to pass new regulations.

“These actions going forward (will) change the nature of the auto industry,” said Mark Rosekind, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He visited the Detroit auto show during its second press day.

Describing them as “potentially history-making,” Rosekind revealed during a conversation that three announcements are set to come in January:

■ On Thursday, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx will visit the North American International Auto Show and plans to announce steps to eliminate barriers and accelerate the development of autonomous vehicles.

■ On Friday, Rosekind will make another appearance in Detroit. And while he wouldn’t discuss details, it is expected that he will announce an industry-government consortium aimed at putting safety breakthroughs into production faster than would happen through the traditional rule-making process.

■ Later this month, NHTSA expects to join 10 automakers that will pledge to make emergency auto-braking systems standard on a wide range of vehicles.

The braking technology has been hailed by safety experts as one of the biggest breakthroughs since the development of the seat belt. But where so-called passive systems, such as seat belts and air bags, are designed to reduce injuries and save lives when a crash occurs, NHTSA and the auto industry are shifting focus to active safety devices that can prevent crashes in the first place.

The payoff could be huge, said Rosekind. After some serious debate, his agency has set a goal of no traffic fatalities. More than 32,000 people died in U.S. traffic accidents in 2014, the last year for which full data is available.

Zero road deaths is not just a goal of regulators. Automaker Volvo set a goal of having “no fatalities or critical injuries in our cars” produced after the 2020 model year, said CEO Hakan Samuelsson during an auto show news conference on Monday. Nissan has set a similar target.

Fifty years after the publication of the groundbreaking Ralph Nader book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” the auto industry no longer believes that safety doesn’t sell. And there’s growing consent that it must be one of the industry’s top priorities, not just the worry of consumers and regulators.

“I agree with that shift,” Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne told automotive journalists Monday at the Detroit Auto Show. “We need to get to the stage where safety is no longer a competitive tool,” but something all manufacturers are expected to deliver.

Rosekind, a former head of the National Transportation Safety Board, wants to lift a page from the airline industry which, during his tenure, agreed to share safety technologies and processes, rather than hold them as proprietary.

That is one goal of the consortium Rosekind is expected to announce Friday. It will include all three of the Detroit automakers, as well as foreign-owned brands including Daimler, BMW, Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai.

Rosekind is clearly pushing to get the industry to share breakthroughs, and implementing change faster than would be possible through the current regulatory process.

While the final details are “still being finessed,” Ford President of the Americas Joe Hinrichs said he is upbeat about the prospects. “A true spirit of cooperation between the agency and the industry is in the best interest of consumers.”

John Mendel, the top U.S. executive at Honda, was equally optimistic, though he admitted the Japanese manufacturer had concerns about sharing some of its most advanced safety systems.

One question raised about the new consortium is whether industry participants could bluster NHTSA into backing off on some issues. Rosekind stressed that his agency isn’t about to withdraw from rule-making.

Indeed, it may need to press hard to get automakers not part of the consortium to act on their own.

He also noted that Congress, as part of the new federal transportation bill, has tripled the potential fine that NHTSA can levy against automakers who violate safety rules to $105 million.

But he doesn’t plan to use that “big stick” too often, Rosekind said, adding that “the best thing is not having to use it.”