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NHTSA acting administrator talks Tesla and AVs before stepping down, AP says

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Ann Carlson, the former acting administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), discussed her time in the role with the Associated Press (AP) before stepping down from the position.

Carlson told employees in an email late last year that she would be leaving the position because the law limited how long officials can remain in a temporary role, according to a Reuters article. President Joe Biden withdrew a nomination for her to serve permanently in the position in May after facing Republican opposition, the article said.

While Reuters says Carlson was set to resign on Dec. 23, the AP article claims she resigned this week.

NHTSA Deputy Administrator Sophie Shulman was set to take over as acting administrator, according to Reuters. However, NHTSA has not officially announced the transition. NHTSA also didn’t respond to an email asking for confirmation of the transition as of press time.

Carlson started at the agency in 2021 as chief counsel. She stepped into the acting administrator position in September 2022.

During Carlson’s time as acting administrator, NHTSA pressured Tesla to recall its “Autopilot” or “Autosteer” program and asked for an ARC Automotive recall on airbags, which the company pushed back against. NHTSA has also proposed two mandates requiring automatic emergency braking (AEB) on vehicles.

When asked about Tesla’s remedy to fix issues found during the recall, Carlson said she couldn’t sufficiently comment.

“NHTSA has the authority to evaluate the remedy and ensure that it’s adequate,” Carlson said. “We have in the past sometimes required a second recall if the remedy is inadequate. The burden is on the manufacturer to remedy the unreasonable risk to safety.”

Tesla claims the remedy will incorporate additional controls to encourage driver responsibility while the Autosteer program is engaged.

NHTSA recalled 52 million ARC Automotive airbags in April of last year. It received pushback from the company, including automakers and automotive suppliers. NHTSA followed the complaints by opening up a public hearing on the subject.

“It is very unusual for us to be in a position where we hold a public hearing,” Carlson said in the AP story. “The purpose is for us to take evidence and then to make a determination about whether our initial finding is, in fact, correct. The public comment period closed. We’re in the process of evaluating those comments.”

With an NHTSA focus on autonomous vehicles in recent years, the AP asked Carlson if the federal administration has the “right people” in place to evaluate the software.

“I’m highly confident in the NHTSA team,” Carlson said in the article. “Some of the recalls that we’ve engaged in recently are evidence of that. It is true that vehicles are increasingly sophisticated. They’re essentially computers on wheels. We’ve really benefited from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which infused a lot of new resources into NHTSA.”

Carlson added that NHTSA has increased its hiring since she started in January 2021, and a new Office of Automation was added to address questions of automation.

“It does not just take software expertise,” Carlson said. “It also takes engineering expertise. It takes legal expertise to make sure that we are conducting our oversight in a way that is consistent with our statutory authority and our regulations.”

The AP also asked Carlson if federal standards are needed for autonomous vehicles.

“NHTSA has the authority to issue vehicle safety standards,” Carlson responded. “But we also need to do it in a way that actually recognizes the rapidity of change and technology.”

Carlson mentioned the 2021 Standing General Order (SGO) that requires crashes to be reported to the NHTSA for vehicles operating SAE Level 2 automated driving systems. The SGO was extended this year.

She also said NHTSA is considering a new program called AV step.

“That would combine the opportunity for manufacturers to deploy automated vehicles with a process that would allow NHTSA significant access to information about redundancy and safety systems,” Carlson said.

Lastly, the AP asked Carlson about post-pandemic trends in roadway deaths.

“A real lesson about traffic fatalities is that there is no single answer to drive them down,” Carlson said. “We need to do everything we can. That means we need safer people, we need safer vehicles, we need safer speeds, we need safer roads and we need improvements in post-crash care. All of those things are crucial to driving fatalities down, and we are using every tool we have to try to do so.”

Carlson plans to resume teaching at the UCLA School of Law, the AP article said.


Photo courtesy of  fcafodIgItal/iStock. 

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