President Joe Biden's nomination last month of Steven Cliff, NHTSA's interim chief, to lead the agency as its permanent administrator and the appointment of Missy Cummings, a Duke University professor, to join NHTSA temporarily as a senior adviser for safety could be turning points.
NHTSA analyzes data it receives from the industry both in terms of the Tesla investigation and the agency's June order requiring automakers to report crashes involving vehicles equipped with advanced driver-assistance or automated driving systems. Cummings' expertise in understanding interactions between a driver and the vehicle's partially or fully automated system will be essential to their development and regulation, vehicle safety experts said.
"You don't hire Missy Cummings unless you're serious about doing something with that data," said Philip Koopman, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who has been working in the autonomous-vehicle safety field for more than two decades.
"Her job is to evaluate the data and see if there's a problem. … The answer might be yes, and the answer might be no," Koopman added. "It's great to see NHTSA both getting the data but also staffing up to be able to do something useful with the data."
The agency's approach to advanced vehicle technologies, such as driver-assist systems, "prioritizes safety across multiple areas including data collection and analysis, research, rule-making and enforcement," a NHTSA spokesperson said in a statement to Automotive News. "As these technologies have been developed, NHTSA has collected data and conducted research, developed test procedures and measured their effectiveness, which are all necessary requirements before a safety standard can be developed."
NHTSA, which updates its regulatory agenda twice a year, is gearing up to issue a final rule on crashworthiness regulations for vehicles equipped with automated driving systems that don't have driver controls.
Next year, the agency is expected to issue a notice seeking comment on a proposal to mandate automatic emergency braking that can also detect pedestrians on all new light vehicles.
Meanwhile, the agency continues to develop its planned changes to the New Car Assessment Program — a consumer-facing evaluation program for new vehicles — and expects to seek public comment on the proposal "in the near future," the spokesperson said. The proposal could include testing and a ratings system for more driver-assist technologies.
David Friedman, a former acting administrator at NHTSA who now is vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports, said the agency has taken "good, positive first steps, but we definitely need to see more to know whether or not the sheriff is really in town."