Elaine Chao: A Speedier Path for Innovation

February 18, 2019Automotive News | By Elaine Chao

Research has shown that more than 90 percent of fatal traffic crashes involve human error. Motor vehicle crashes in 2017 killed 37,133 people, including 5,977 pedestrians and 783 bicyclists, and injured nearly 3 million adults and children.

The annual economic cost of motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. is over $240 billion. It is impossible to quantify the true scope of the human tragedy of all the lives lost and those forever altered due to serious injury.

Behavioral changes and vehicle safety innovations are the keys to reducing traffic crash fatalities and injuries. For several decades there has been relentless effort by government, safety advocates and vehicle manufacturers to make people safer drivers and to produce safer vehicles.

The results have been very positive: Traffic fatalities have declined 32 percent since 1972, despite the 153 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled since that time.

Fantasy becoming reality

As part of the effort to increase safety, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 established a system of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that specify the design, construction, performance and durability requirements for motor vehicles.

The very first safety standards concerned seat belts and were adopted on March 1, 1967. Since then, an array of technological innovations have further enhanced vehicle safety. These safety improvements include antilock brakes, lane departure warnings, blind spot monitors, electronic stability control, adaptive cruise control, forward collision avoidance capability and much more.

Developed and enforced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the safety standards process has worked fairly well, most of the time. But it did not anticipate today’s rapid pace of innovation.

When this federal regulatory regime was established, its creators could hardly imagine, for example, that NHTSA would ever be asked to permit vehicles that operate without steering wheels. Even the Jetsons’ flying family car had manual steering.

But today, fantasy is becoming reality. In January 2018, an auto company applied to NHTSA for a temporary exemption from 16 standards in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for the purpose of testing all-electric vehicles with automated driving systems. These vehicles would operate without steering wheels, a gear selection mechanism or foot pedals, among other things.

Great promise

To expedite solicitation and receipt of public comments on this petition and others in the future, on Dec. 18, NHTSA updated and adjusted the temporary-exemption process. Petitioners still will have to provide adequate justification for a petition to be granted. But thanks to the updated exemption process, the department will now be able to solicit comments from the public more quickly.

Innovations in transportation technology hold great promise for improving safety and increasing mobility. Some of these technologies are currently being road-tested under conditions established by state and local governments, with guidance provided by NHTSA.

The complexities of many of these technologies, their safety implications and the vital role our transportation systems have in our society merit thorough consideration. The U.S. Department of Transportation, through public forums and the regulatory process, encourages everyone with an interest in these issues to weigh in.

Through a collaborative review process, the department will be better able to determine whether, when and how these technologies should be integrated into America’s transportation systems.

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