Special Coverage

SAE World Congress

DETROIT – The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.’s new chief outlines an ambitious agenda to auto engineers at the SAE Congress here that likely will include new rules and higher expectations regarding how auto makers respond to alleged safety problems.

While NHTSA has been highly critical of Toyota Motor Corp.’s response to complaints of sudden unintended acceleration in some of its vehicles, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland praises the auto maker for swift reaction to a possible rollover risk of its Lexus GX 460 SUV.

Toyota has stopped all sales of the vehicle globally following a report by Consumer Reports magazine this week that the vehicle’s electronic-stability-control system performed poorly in a handling test and could pose a rollover risk.

“That is the kind of response I hope every auto maker will take,” Strickland tells reporters following his keynote address here.

“Safety is first. We will figure out the details ongoing, but you should never pause safety for taking a look at positioning yourself in the press. Your consumer should be your first priority at all times. If your car isn’t safe, nothing else really matters, and I’m glad that Lexus has taken the steps it did.”

Strickland says NHTSA currently is testing the Lexus large SUV to look for a defect and see if the vehicle’s ESC system is in compliance with government standards.

He also suggests the safety agency is raising its expectations in terms of how fast and comprehensively all auto makers will be expected to react to safety problems.

“Frankly, (safety) is a moral obligation,” Strickland says. “Consumer safety is absolutely the priority here. The car is a mode of transportation that has become incredibly complex, with wonderful technologies, and it creates great joy and pleasure. But if the car is not safe, we’ve lost it all.”

Strickland complimented the work of automotive engineers numerous times during his official remarks, specifically citing advancements in backup-camera technology and ESC in saving lives and advancing vehicle safety.

Improving pedestrian safety and addressing driver distraction now are high on the safety agency’s to-do list, he says.

NHTSA currently is looking at numerous ways of protecting pedestrians from vehicles, ranging from requiring quiet hybrid and all-electric vehicles to emanate warning sounds to sophisticated electronic systems that detect pedestrians and automatically brake vehicles if drivers are inattentive.

He also says the agency is waging a multi-pronged war on driver distraction, which was linked to 6,000 deaths in 2008.

Aggressive law enforcement and ticketing of drivers caught texting is part of the answer, Strickland says, but NHTSA also is watching closely the growing proliferation of vehicle “infotainment” systems and may look at regulating them if they pose a distraction.

Several possible rulemakings also are under way regarding sudden unintended acceleration, relating to start/stop buttons, creating pedal designs that cannot be trapped by mats and updating coming 2012 rules for electronic-data recorders in vehicles.

Strickland admits he loves visiting Detroit. “I can’t be in Detroit enough,” he says. That could prove to be both a blessing and a curse for the region’s auto makers.

dwinter@wardsauto.com