U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will convene a 2-day summit beginning Sept. 30 in Washington aimed at reducing the risk of distracted driving, but auto maker representation among the roster of experts presenting at the event appears light.
According to details of the conference released earlier today by the USDOT, Rob Strassburger, vice president-Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, stands as the sole individual among 29 scheduled speakers with direct ties to auto makers.
Strassburger joined the industry lobbyist in 2000 fromNorth America Inc., where he directed government affairs. Prior to landing at Nissan, the 25-year industry veteran held a number of safety, engineering and vehicle emissions positions with North America. He is an engineering graduate of the University of Michigan.
But beyond AAM, which serves as the de facto voice for 11 vehicle manufacturers in Washington on any number of policy issues, no executives or safety experts from any of the major auto makers selling in the U.S. will speak.
Calls to NHTSA seeking comment on the panelists scheduled were not immediately returned.
The forum is the first automobile safety-related event for the Obama Admin. Among several issues, it will take on one of the most dangerous and rapidly growing forms of distracted driving – texting from behind the wheel.
A number of fatal crashes related to texting helped spur the summit, although the USDOT also seeks to diffuse a scandal at its National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. unit, where earlier this decade important data on the dangers of cell phone use while driving was suppressed.
Safety advocates successfully sued NHTSA to make documents related to the data public, saying lives could have been saved if Americans were more aware of the risks earlier in the cell-phone boom.
NHTSA data not only showed cell-phone use presented a risk to safe driving, but concluded hands-free phones were equally dangerous. The industry and safety advocates are divided over the risk hands-free units present.
Auto maker participation at the event would seem important, given that LaHood intends to formulate a plan to combat distracted driving that includes regulatory and legislative action.
While new or stricter enforcement of traffic laws would be one key area of focus, government action also could demand auto makers design safer communications systems or limit the use of existing telematics technology serving as a big selling point with consumers wanting to remain connected while in their cars.
Safety experts previously suggested to Ward’s solutions such as cutting off telematics use once a vehicle shifts out of park or collaborating with device makers on Bluetooth designs that convert a cellular devices to hands-free-only operation once a driver enters the vehicle.
Any solution could be costly to manufacturers and consumers. New fuel rules proposed earlier this week by the Obama Admin. will cost auto makers $60.2 billion to meet, according to NHTSA.
Another recent rule proposal that would mandate rear sensors to determine if a pedestrian or object were behind a car or truck, is estimated to cost between $58 and $203 per vehicle, NHTSA says. Electronic stability control, mandatory in 2012, will cost auto makers $985 million.
Auto maker representation aside, the summit won’t be short on distracted-driving experts.
The roster of speakers includes Ann Dellinger, who heads the Motor Vehicle Injury Prevention Team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute; David Eby, research associate professor and head of social and behavioral analysis at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute; and Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Auto makers will be in attendance, too.Co., for example, says it will send a number of safety policy experts, although exactly who might attend has not been decided.
“We will be participating,” GM spokesman Kerry Christopher says.
In an interview with Ward’s last week, Chet Huber, the outgoing president of GM’s OnStar telematics unit, said no technology exists to replace sound human judgment.
“People need to drive responsibly, people need to maintain their focus on the road,” he says. “They know their thresholds.”
OnStar provides hands free calling as an option to some 5.5 million subscribers and bills it as one of its most valued features.
Underscoring the depth of distracted driving knowledge at auto makers such as GM andMotor Co., which for years has researched the risk inside its VIRtual Test Track Experiment simulation dome, Huber says crash data culled by OnStar since its launch in 1995 proves what causes crashes. OnStar receives data from 200 crashes per month.
“There’s a lot of science, and right now a lot of it is in study form. And the studies are only as good as the methodology that creates them and as good as the ability to actually simulate the events that are going on,” he says.
“We think we’ve got really good data,” Huber adds. “We know when cars crash and when they don’t crash. Our data would confirm what we set out to do in the first place, which is architect a very responsible, hands-free, in its most esoteric sense, capability that respects the driving environment.”
As for the texting phenomenon leading to the summit, Huber expects swift action soon.
“That doesn’t pass the common-sense test, that you would allow texting in a vehicle,” he says. “It just doesn’t make any sense at all. You would expect the government to act in a way that would be consistent with the public interest in this area. It’s too important for everybody.”
The USDOT will host the distracted driving summit at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington. A live webcast will be made available to the public, which will have the opportunity to submit questions to the panelists.
Texting while driving is illegal in 14 states and the District of Columbia.