Consumer Groups Sue NHTSA to Fast-Track Automated Emergency Braking

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Not everyone is happy about a recent agreement between car companies and federal regulators that would ensure all new cars are equipped with automated emergency braking systems by 2022.

Ever since the ink dried on the pact in March, consumer advocates have voiced concerns about both the timeframe for adopting this potential life-saving technology and the voluntary nature of the agreement. Their disagreements reached a new level last week, with two organizations and a former chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) filing a lawsuit against that agency in an attempt to spur a formal rulemaking from regulators.

“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 plaintiffs’ lawyers in the case.

Safety advocates complain the agreement lacks any enforcement power and continues a pattern of soft oversight from regulators at a time when the auto industry has been afflicted by a series of deadly product defects.

Car companies and federal regulators, on the other hand, hail the voluntary agreement as an example of a new, proactive way of working together. They estimate the voluntary approach will mean AEB will be deployed three years faster than waiting for an official federal rulemaking process to play out.

The litigation is notable for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that a former NHTSA administrator is suing the current one. Joan Claybrook, who served as administrator of the regulatory agency during the Carter administration, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which lists current administrator Mark Rosekind as a defendant in addition to NHTSA itself.

More broadly, the lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to compel a ruling on a petition that Consumer Watchdog and the Center for Auto Safety, the two other plaintiffs, presented NHTSA in January. That petition, filed two months before the voluntary agreement was signed, asked NHTSA to start a rulemaking process regarding automated emergency braking. Per federal statute, the agency had 120 days to respond to that petition. But now, six months since that deadline has passed, no response has been forthcoming.

NHTSA officials did not return a request Thursday for comment on the lawsuit.

Automated emergency braking (AEB) systems can prevent crashes or reduce their severity by warning drivers of imminent dangers and automatically applying brakes if motorists don’t take evasive action. Estimates from the agency show that 910,000 crashes per year fit the profiles of the rear-end crashes AEB systems could thwart. An analysis from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that 28,000 crashes and 12,000 injuries will be prevented in the first three years of the voluntary agreement.

The voluntary agreement doesn’t prevent automakers from deploying the technology sooner. Currently, Volvo offers automated emergency braking as a standard feature on its full lineup, and Toyota has pledged to make it a standard feature on nearly every Toyota and Lexus model sold in 2017.

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