NHTSA’s New Boss on Why the Safety Agency Needs a Bigger Stick

Mark R. Rosekind

From the September 2015 issue

Just as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was about to close the books on 2014, a year in which a record number of cars were recalled, it underwent a change in leadership. On December 22, Mark R. Rosekind, a former NASA researcher and member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), was sworn in as administrator. The GM ignition-switch-defect investigation cast doubt on NHTSA’s ability to police the industry, and Rosekind’s tenure has so far been dominated by the Takata airbag recall, which has ballooned to become the largest consumer-product safety action in history. It’s no wonder then that the head of the safety agency thinks he could use more clout.

C/D: Does NHTSA have an adequate mandate from Congress?

MR: Congress gave us a pure, straightforward mission: save lives, prevent injuries, reduce crashes. But we need better resources: people, technology, and authority. With all the visibility last year, complaints received here at NHTSA went from 45,000 to 80,000. Eight people look at those. That’s just not enough. In the president’s proposed 2016 budget, we have a ­significant boost. We identify two new divisions we will start. One is a trend-analy­sis division. And it wouldn’t be just looking at complaints and early warning reports from manufacturers, but blogs, social media, and websites. The other division is for field investigation and testing. So when there’s a defect concern, we’d have our own crash-investigation “go team” well versed in looking specifically for defects.

C/D: Critics say that auto manufacturers are not wary enough of NHTSA, that their real fear is civil lawsuits. Is the recall system broken?

MR: There’s been a lot of discussion about that. We’re all about action now. The first week I was on the job is when we announced a $70 million fine against Honda. There were two penalties, so we did the maximum we could. Authority is really critical. Our maximum penalty is $35 million, and nowadays that’s pocket change. So we have asked for a $300 million penalty, because that’s going to get attention and really change behavior.

C/D: Autonomous technology is looming on the horizon. Are the carmakers outpacing regulation here?

MR: Car technology is going to keep pushing forward no matter what. NHTSA’s role is to make sure it’s safe.



C/D: Do you see a future in which we are no longer driving?

MR: I come from NASA and worked at the NTSB, and my background is in human ­factors, so I frequently raise aviation examples. They used to have a pilot and a co-pilot, and it used to be “pilot flying” and “pilot not flying.” Do you know what they say now? “Pilot monitoring.” That’s the co-pilot. We’ve already seen this, it’s already happening in aviation, which is the safest mode of transportation right now. So you can look in the crystal ball and know what’s going to happen. When you look at how automation has taken over the cockpit of airplanes—it’s been 30 years now—what’s interesting is the last few crashes we’ve seen have all been about the technology in the cockpit. Pilots didn’t know what the computer was doing, and they weren’t moni­tor­ing what was going on. The worst thing you can hear from a pilot is, “What’s it doing now?” I don’t care what is said about when these cars are going to be on the road; we know any new technology can take 20 to 30 years to fully come into the automotive fleet. Humans are going to go from having primary responsibility, from operating, to monitoring. But we already know what’s involved there from aviation; we already know what the risks are. Driver education and human behavior and responsibility are not going to go away, even when we get self-driving vehicles.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s