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Auto Safety, Recalls And The Revolving Door

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is tasked with maintaining proper safety standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment. The NHTSA investigates automobile defects and enforces safety standards to reduce traffic accidents. The mission of the NHTSA is all about safety for the driving public. Critics of the NHTSA contend that the mission of safety takes a back seat when executives routinely leave the organization to take higher paying jobs in the auto industry.

Consumer Watchdog recently sent a letter to the heads of the Department of Transportation and the NHTSA asking for changes that would help keep the focus on public safety. The group is asking the two men to promise not to accept employment with companies looking to develop autonomous vehicles for at least 7 years after leaving their current positions. Google, in particular, has made a habit of hiring former high-ranking NHTSA officials when they leave the organization. 

The letter comes, at least partly, in response to the unusual urgency surrounding the NHTSA efforts to establish a policy for autonomous vehicles. The DOT head promised that the NHTSA would release an updated policy shortly. Many commentators within the auto industry believe that autonomous vehicles are unlikely to be a significant part of the market for years to come. The pressure from the two leaders to act before a new administration has a chance to replace them raises red flags. If safety does not dictate the need to act quickly, why the rush?

The previous head of the NHTSA is now the spokesperson and counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets. That is a trade group made up of Google and other players who stand to profit from the rise of autonomous vehicles. Three other high-ranking officials have likewise moved into roles where they are advocates for Google. The letter from Consumer Watchdog reflects the concern that the policies advocated by the NHTSA are functioning as a job interview for Google and other autonomous vehicle companies. The group believes that a pledge not to work with these companies would show that the new autonomous vehicle policy is being designed for the safety of the public and not to secure a job in the industry.

The explosion of auto recalls by the NHTSA brought the group's dubious history into the forefront. A former associate administrator of the NHTSA serves as a representative for Takata Corp., the maker of millions of defective airbags. This and many other examples raise serious questions about the NHTSA's role as a safety regulator. As long as the revolving door keeps spinning, the public has a right to be skeptical of the group charged with keeping auto companies in line.

Source: Auto Connected Car News, "Leaving NHTSA for high paying Google self-driving jobs should stop says Consumer Watchdog," by Lynn Walford, 20 May 2016

NHTSA, "Who We Are and What We Do" NHTSA.gov May 2016

USA Today, "Safety sacrificed in NHTSA revolving door: Column," by Dan Becker and James Gerstenzang, 25 February 2015 

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