Editor's note: Joan Claybrook is the former president of Public Citizen. Her title and the name of the organization were incorrect in a previous version of this story.
DETROIT -- The U.S. Transportation Department and 17 automakers today pledged to work together to enhance safety and improve recalls while the companies also agreed to voluntarily work with the government to identify cybersecurity threats to cars and light trucks.
General Motors, Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and other companies agreed to reform the way they track and report fatalities, injuries and warranty claims to the government.
The historic agreement includes four principles aimed at creating a “proactive safety” culture, improving Early Warning Reporting data usage, “maximizing” recall completion rates and tackling cybersecurity concerns.
“These commitments we make today will help catch safety defects before they explode into massive recalls,” U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in an appearance Friday with top executives at automakers at the Detroit auto show. “They will help improve the quality of data that automakers and NHTSA analyze to seek defects today. And they will also help to find ways to generate better data in the future.”
Company executives met with Foxx and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator Mark Rosekind before the announcement Friday at Cobo Center. They had also met with Foxx in Washington in December.
The DOT, NHTSA, American Honda, BMW, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, GM, Hyundai, Jaguar Land Rover, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Porsche, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo signed onto the agreement.
“As we sat around the table here today, none of us could recall a moment quite like this, a moment in which the global automotive industry came together to determine how we can make vehicles that are safer than ever become even safer in the future,” Foxx said.
Foxx has pressed the companies to create voluntary measures they could agree to outside of the agency's traditional regulatory framework.
The agreement encourages collaboration among automakers to address safety concerns. For instance, automakers will share best practices to encourage the public to have recalled vehicles repaired.
Compared to aviation
Foxx pointed to the aviation industry, which shares safety data and information, as an example of what could happen if the auto industry works collectively to enhance safety.
“Real safety is finding and fixing defects before someone gets hurt rather than punishing them after damage is done,” Foxx said.
As part of the agreement’s cybersecurity measures, automakers agreed to “support and evolve the auto industry’s information sharing and analysis center” by expanding membership to include suppliers to share “common/generic countermeasures” against cybersecurity threats.
GM CEO Mary Barra told reporters following Foxx’s remarks that the agreement marks a “historical moment” for the industry.
“We’re proud to be a part of this, working on some common best practices,” Barra said. “… I see it as a real opportunity and a foundation that we can build upon.”
The news follows an announcement Thursday in Detroit that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration will allow automakers with safe autonomous vehicles to apply for exemptions to certain rules. It’s part of the new approach by the agency designed to ensure government doesn’t stand in the way of technological progress.
But some safety experts blasted the plan.
Joan Claybrook, a former head of NHTSA, said the agreement was "toothless" and "a step in the wrong direction" following a year of record recalls and an increase in motor vehicle fatalities.
"There is nothing preventing the auto industry from disregarding or outright violating these principles," she said, adding they could be considered subterfuge to violate reporting requirements by doing “data dumps.”
Claybook, the former president of consumer activist group Public Citizen, warned the American public "will not be best protected with a kumbaya between the federal agency charged with issuing regulation and the industry seeking to avoid regulation."
Regulators also announced their intention to award $4 billion in grants to fund demonstration projects that can help speed the reality of self-driving cars.
Last year, 10 companies committed to make automatic emergency braking standard in all new vehicles. The companies made the commitment rather than waiting for a federal mandate, Rosekind said in Detroit on Tuesday.
The effort is a model of how the industry and U.S. regulators should work together in the future, Rosekind said, an effort he calls “proactive safety.”
Automotive News’ John Irwin and Bloomberg contributed to this report.
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