As the economy continues to struggle, federal regulators are taking steps that will undeniably raise the price of new cars. We asked David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), how the feds determine what steps they're going to take and how initiatives like the proposed backup-camera rule are handled.
Cars.com: This is an uncomfortable topic, but an important one: Given the costs of high-tech features, how do you as NHTSA, or we as a society, decide how much gain justifies the pain? For example, if a new feature is expected to save one life per year, is that enough to mandate it? How about 100 lives, as we've seen predicted as the outcome of a proposed mandate for backup cameras on all cars by 2014? It might seem crass, but presumably there's a formula for what a citizen's life is worth. How does NHTSA make these decisions?
David Strickland: "We get proprietary data from the manufacturers in terms of what the components currently cost, what they may cost, and we look at a lot of other things and then we turn to other parts of the federal government including the Office of Management and Budget and we take a look at modeling and lots of economists that do work in this area.
"Where the line is drawn, there's clearly some general rules in how we achieve that, but I don't think there's an exact line. I think a classic example is the backover rule ... it's a very expensive rule. And why do we undertake this type of a rule? Specifically, backovers impact two segments of the population: children and the elderly. And I think, especially in the case of children, that is a special protected class that people frankly value ...
"I think the backover rule follows the general strictures of what we have to evaluate from our statutory authority, but it also reflects the fact, at the end of the day, that the line isn't exactly straight. There's logical reasons why we make decisions that make sense in terms of the actual cost of the vehicle and the actual purpose for that particular function.
"In addition to saving a life, fewer people are bound to back into traffic and hit another car or to back into a fence, and so there's property damage and all these other things that fold into it. I'd love to be able to tell you there's a great computer-like Oz thing out there that we dump information into and we get the exact answer every time and we go forward or we don't go forward from that answer. That's not true. There's a lot of factors that go into it and we work very hard to make sure that we have logical and proper outcomes, in the agency's opinion, to move forward safety for the American public. We want to do it in a thoughtful way every time."
Cars.com: How does personal responsibility play into the picture as automakers carry an increasing burden for vehicle safety, for everything from active safety features to acceleration anomalies? Are we not breeding a generation of drivers who see their role as diminished -- who rely on electronics rather than judgment? Could this not promote the driver distraction NHTSA has committed to combat?
Strickland: "Where does personal responsibility begin and the automobile end? We can never replace the decision-making of the driver. What we want to do is support the driver in the decisions they make and how they handle the vehicle.
"I think the goal and the decisions that we make here at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is to find smart, thoughtful ways driven by good data, good science and good engineering to support the driver in that role. That's probably the best way to accomplish that. Having the vehicle 'second-guess the driver,' you have the possibility of unintended circumstances. ... At the end of the day, you want to make sure the driver is always the ultimate decision-maker, always in control, as it should be.
Cars.com: It seems inevitable that consumers will attempt to stay connected while driving and otherwise be more distracted than ever. NHTSA isn't actively regulating how automakers incorporate potentially distracting features. How are the manufacturers doing at policing themselves?
Strickland: "I would say at this point the marketplace is incredibly diverse in how they're working toward implementing their strategies for communication integration. That's the reason why the agency is working on voluntary guidelines in terms of how these systems work: the human-factors issues, physical distraction in terms of inputting things while under way, like on a keyboard -- like putting in an address while you're driving -- how long systems take to react, which activities we think are better [locked out] when you're underway. We're working on that because groups of manufacturers have different perspectives on what can be done while underway and what should be done while you're standing still.
"We're working very hard making decisions based on data and science as we issue these voluntary guidelines. I really don't have an overall evaluation of how the manufacturers are doing. They all have different strategies, they all have advantages, they all have disadvantages, and it's our role at the agency to establish the zone of safety at this first round of voluntary guidelines, and we're going to be working on issues like cognitive distraction in terms of how much a person can actually handle -- even when you have your eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel. That's research that's underway."
Cars.com: Many of the government's initiatives seem to be in conflict. Greater safety equals higher weight, which diminishes mileage. Likewise, the Environmental Protection Agency's push for E15 -- 15 percent ethanol in gasoline rather than the current 10 percent -- decreases the very mpg ratings the agency itself is trying to raise. Frankly, we wonder if one hand knows what the other is doing. Is anyone within the government responsible for considering these issues?
Strickland: "We both regulate the same space," he said of the EPA and NHTSA, explaining that there are safety implications to the adoption of new fuels like E15, which some have suggested could cause stalling in older engines.
"We're two agencies that have been working very closely together for a very long time, so there isn't this notion that one agency is doing one thing in a vacuum and another agency is doing something in a vacuum and we don't talk. We talk every day. And when we have these common issues we work together through them. At the end of the day, it's Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Administrator Lisa Jackson over at EPA when there are issues that come to a policy juncture that we need to sort out, and then those two leaders are great at doing that."