Three of the nation’s leading consumer advocates have sued the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in a federal district court in Washington, D.C., for failing to respond to a formal request that the agency require automakers to adopt advanced safety technologies that could prevent or limit the injuries and property damage from an estimated 910,000 automobile crashes every year.
On Jan. 16, Consumer Watchdog, the Center for Auto Safety and Joan Claybrook, former NHTSA administrator and president emeritus of Public Citizen, petitioned NHTSA to require cars to use Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) – a set of three technologies that use combinations of radar, lidar (reflected laser light) and cameras to alert the driver and intervene if a rear-end crash is imminent.
Under federal law, NHTSA was supposed to grant or deny the petition within 120 days – by May 12. NHTSA has yet do to so.
In the meantime, on March 17, NHTSA announced that it had reached an agreement negotiated behind closed doors with 20 car companies to allow them to roll out weak versions of the technology on an unenforceable “voluntary” basis over a 10-year period, evading formal federal safety protections. Represented by Public Citizen and Consumer Watchdog, the plaintiffs filed the lawsuit on Nov. 23, asking the court to order NHTSA to issue a decision on the petition within 30 days.
As the complaint states: “The danger to public safety caused by defendants’ failure to initiate a rulemaking to require AEB technologies to be installed in light vehicles counsels in favor of expeditious action on plaintiffs’ petition. The pace of defendants’ decisional process is unreasonable in light of the statutory deadline for responding to the petition… and the nature and extent of the public interests at stake.”
“This year, NHTSA has devoted enormous agency resources to ‘driverless vehicles,’ which are years or even decades away, while a safety system that is ready to start saving lives right now has been relegated to the whims of the auto companies,” said Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog and one of the lawyers in the case.
“NHTSA continues to allow automakers to introduce advanced safety features at their own pace, by issuing ‘voluntary’ guidelines with no force of law,” said Michael Brooks, acting director at the Center for Auto Safety. “For too long, the agency has postponed requiring the proven lifesaving technology of Automatic Emergency Braking. NHTSA should immediately issue a rulemaking that defines performance requirements for these systems and mandates their installation in all vehicles without delay.”
“Voluntary standards don’t work,” said Claybrook, the former NHTSA administrator and president emeritus of Public Citizen. “They protect manufacturers, not consumers. AEB is one of the most important lifesaving automotive systems available today. Yet the U.S. Department of Transportation is refusing to use its statutory authority to assure that consumers can rely on a safe AEB system in every car sold in the U.S. and won’t even answer our consumer petition for action.”
“The agency’s time to respond to the petition has long since passed,” said Adina Rosenbaum, the attorney at Public Citizen representing the plaintiffs. “The agency should end its delay at once and comply with its statutory obligation to respond.”
About the Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) Petition
AEB consists of a suite of three technologies:
- Forward Collision Warning alerts a motorist (via audio or visual signals) that a collision with a car in front is imminent;
- Crash Imminent Braking intervenes when the driver does not respond to the Forward Collision Warning by automatically applying the brakes to prevent a collision or reduce the vehicle’s speed at impact; and
- Dynamic Brake Support applies supplemental braking when the braking applied by the driver is insufficient to avoid a collision.
NHTSA has already endorsed the AEB system and already rates new cars on whether they include these safety features. The agency is considering whether to require installation of the equipment in heavy vehicles such as trucks. But the voluntary agreement announced in March does not require that AEB become standard equipment in cars. Instead, it represents an unenforceable pledge to implement weak versions of the systems. Neither NHTSA nor consumers may challenge the automakers’ violation of the agreement.