New NHTSA boss: More recalls ahead

With a statue of boxing legend Joe Louis in the background of his press conference at Cobo Hall, the new administrator of the federal agency charged with protecting motorists vowed to get tougher with automakers that flout government regulations.

Only in his second week on the job as the new administrator of the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Mark Rosekind outlined plans to enforce strict safety and environmental standards for car companies to uphold.

On Monday, he took that message to their home turf. Rosekind made an appearance at the
North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where he spent time touring exhibits that showed safety innovations and meeting with automaker representatives.

Before leaving the convention hall, he said he’d seek additional resources for the beleaguered safety agency, which has been criticized on Capitol Hill for allowing the
General Motors ignition-switch and
Takata airbag crises to continue unabated for years. After automakers
recalled a record number of cars in 2014, Rosekind said he’d continue to press for more
repairs this year.

«I think we could actually see an increase in the number of recalls,» he said. «The reality is that means your system is working. We’d rather have people on the proactive end catching stuff really early. … I’d rather have people be preemptive than waiting too long and making a mistake, because you can’t save those lives after they’re gone.»

Growing Staff, Effectiveness And Expertise

A 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office
found only 70 percent of the vehicles recalled are actually fixed, and Rosekind, who spent the past four years serving as a member of the
National Transportation Safety Board, believes the number is too low. He said he’d consider pursuing regulations that require automakers to fix every car affected by a recall and wants automakers to find innovative ways to convince motorists to repair their flawed vehicles.

«That’s something we’re looking at,» he said.

Fresh off a week in which
NHTSA levied its largest fine in history –
Honda will pay $70 million for failing to disclose death, injury and
warranty claims required by law – Rosekind said he would support provisions in the Grow America Act that increase the maximum fine the agency can levy to $300 million.

Within NHTSA, he hinted he may propose a new structure that would enhance the agency’s investigative power by creating two new divisions, spending more money and adding «a whole bunch of people.» Staffing levels at the agency became a key topic during Congressional hearings that examined NHTSA’s role in prolonging the
GM ignition-switch and Takata airbag defects, even though in those cases, deadly defects were known in NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation years before the problems mushroomed into full-blown emergencies.

Rosekind said Monday the agency not only lacks the necessary number of employees needed to regulate the industry, it also lacks expertise in key areas. Toward that end, he said the agency will hire an independent expert who understands the chemistry and propellant problems that may lie at the heart of the exploding Takata airbag problem.

It’s not the first time NHTSA has needed to look outside for expertise in an investigation. During the unintended acceleration crisis that plagued
Toyota, NHTSA relied on experts at
NASA who better understood electronic malfunctions. The Takata investigation is ongoing.

«It’s only been a week, but we’re already focused on (how) the agency is incredibly under-resourced,» he said. «I get here and realize that it’s much worse than any of us have really understood before.»

Cheap Fuel And The Future

Safety wasn’t the only area Rosekind addressed. With a number of automakers introducing high-performance cars in Detroit and
gas prices across the country continuing to fall, it wasn’t lost on
auto show attendees that car companies would have a more difficult time selling
hybrid and
electric vehicles to consumers.

With a review of government regulations that mandate automakers achieve a 54.5-miles-per-gallon average across their fleets by 2025 looming next year, Rosekind said he’s not inclined to scale back the rules, which were co-written by NHTSA and the
Environmental Protection Agency.

«There’s certain objectives that have to do with long-term issues here in the world,» he said. «We’re not going to give up or let go just because oil prices come and go in certain ways.»

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