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Speeches and Presentations

SAE International Government/Industry

Lunch Remarks | James Owens, Acting Administrator

Thursday, January 23, 2020 | Washington, DC


Thank you, I appreciate the invitation to be here today.  SAE International, thank you for everything you do to advance safety – and for holding this conference so government and industry can meet to discuss shared interests.  We also appreciate your continued engagement and feedback on agency initiatives, including our notice and comment opportunities.

Let me start by noting the three guiding principles that Secretary Chao has pursued since the beginning of this Administration.

First, safety is our number one priority.   

Second, we need to preserve and improve our nation’s transportation infrastructure.  

And third, we need to prepare for the future by developing rules and practices that accommodate innovation in a tech-neutral way, while ensuring consistency with our core safety mission.  These three principles inform NHTSA’s goals for 2020.

2020 also marks 50 years since the creation of NHTSA.  We’ll be celebrating throughout the year with events and information about just how far roadway safety has come in 50 years.

Everything we do at NHTSA is driven by a desire to save lives – and is backed by data, sound science, and engineering.  

This research has the potential to save lives – and there’s nothing more important than that to every one of us at NHTSA.  

First, the facts:  In 2018, we saw a 2.4% decline in fatalities on our nation’s roadways, the second consecutive year of declines.  Our early estimates for 2019 suggest the trend is continuing, and that is a very good thing.  But we still lost 36,560 lives in 2018.  

While that number was down, that’s no solace to the family and friends of those lost in senseless, preventable crashes.  I find it simply unacceptable that we lose so many lives on our roadways.  

Under Secretary Chao’s leadership, NHTSA is focused on what we can do to save lives and bring those numbers down further.

NHTSA is engaged in numerous initiatives and areas of research that will drive safety improvements and advance deployment of new safety technologies.

We are also conducting important behavioral research to help make us all better, more attentive, and, most importantly, responsible drivers.  In November, we had a public meeting at DOT Headquarters to share some of this research and our vehicle safety portfolio to gather feedback from stakeholders.  That meeting’s public docket remains open for comment.

This includes persistent behavioral issues such as speeding, alcohol-impaired driving, distraction, motorcycle safety, seat belt usage, as well as the growing impact that drug-impaired driving has on public safety.

2019 marked the 40th anniversary of the New Car Assessment Program, or NCAP.  This year, we’ll be making changes to NCAP to make it even more relevant and informative for consumers.

These upgrades will include new technologies, new test procedures, updates to vehicle labeling, advancements in crash-test dummies, and continued consumer research to ensure NCAP’s products are effectively meeting the needs of individuals and families.  

NHTSA will also consider adding new technologies tied to the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists, among other vulnerable road users.  

And because we know that consumers demand safety, NCAP modernization will continue to deploy market-based incentives and competitive pressure to drive further safety-enhancing innovation by industry.

We will be inviting public comment on these proposed changes later this year.

We believe technology can and will play a large role in preventing crashes and saving lives.  Widespread adoption of new safety features, like automatic emergency braking, is important and something we highly encourage.

One aspect of technology that holds particular promise is vehicle-to-everything technology – V2X.

In fact, at TRB last week, Secretary Chao announced a $38 million pilot program to equip emergency response vehicles, transit vehicles, and highway infrastructure with V2X.

It is our hope that V2X – and the Safety Band it uses – can help address a serious issue facing first responders.  Each year, there are an estimated 46,000 crashes, 17,000 people injured, and nearly 150 fatalities involving emergency response vehicles.  

The Secretary and I believe V2X has incredible lifesaving potential for both the emergency response community and the traveling public.  I am eager to see the results of this pilot.

The United States leads the world in advanced vehicle technologies because innovators are able to develop safety-enhancing technologies here and now.  Under the leadership of Secretary Chao, NHTSA is facilitating the safe testing, development, and eventual deployment of advanced vehicle safety technologies, such as Automated Driving Systems (ADS). 

NHTSA exercises careful oversight over these developing technologies by closely engaging with developers, conducting research into emerging technologies and human factors, investigating incidents and complaints, and when necessary and appropriate, exercising our broad enforcement authority. 

And when the time is right—when the technology is proven—our history shows that we will adopt performance-based standards for these vehicle automation technologies and others that may emerge.

While these remain in their infancy, today many manufacturers are developing and rolling out new advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). Examples include automatic emergency braking and lane keeping assistance, which can help drivers avoid crashes and reduce the severity of crashes that do occur.

We expect that these and other developing technologies will help further reduce fatalities on our roads, including among pedestrians and other vulnerable road users, and the early data on the efficacy of these technologies are promising.  

It is critical that the public understands a vital fact about current technologies: all vehicles sold to the public today require a driver to be fully attentive and cognitively engaged in the driving task at all times.  

This is true even if the car is equipped with any of the ADAS technologies currently on the market.  While these ADAS technologies are improving and enhancing safety, they are not self-driving.  

Misusing driver assistance systems by failing to maintain control of the operation of the vehicle at all times can result in serious and even deadly crashes.   
Consumer education is an important tool in ensuring that ADAS technologies are used in a way that enhances safety.  

NHTSA also recently released nine new draft test procedures for ADAS technologies, and these have been submitted to the Federal Register for your comments and feedback.  The docket was scheduled to close on January 21, but we’ve extended the deadline to March 6.  If you have not yet commented, please do so – we want to hear from everyone.

In addition to driver assistance technologies, we are seeing significant investments in more advanced Automated Driving Systems that might one day allow vehicles to drive themselves and thereby have the potential to greatly reduce the number of fatal and injury crashes involving human error or poor choices.  

ADS technologies also have the potential to enhance mobility for underserved communities, including people with disabilities and older Americans, and reduce congestion on our crowded highways.   

Speaking of: Let me take a moment to highlight the Department’s Request for Information on our Inclusive Design Challenge, in which we will award $5 million to aid the development of innovative new solutions that increase the availability and accessibility and reduce the cost of technologies of light-duty passenger vehicles.  Responses are being sought through the end of the month.

These technologies are being developed today by many different innovators.  NHTSA is actively participating by maintaining a close dialogue with developers to ensure that our safety concerns are incorporated into the product development process.

This includes our concerns about cybersecurity. NHTSA plans to update our cybersecurity best practices later this year.

Some of NHTSA’s existing policies and regulations will require updating to address the innovative vehicle designs being introduced by ADS developers.  

Currently, NHTSA is working on 10 separate rulemakings that address regulatory issues related to future governance of ADS technologies.  

Existing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards may present unintended and unnecessary barriers for future ADS vehicles without drivers.  Historically, FMVSS have been based on the concept of a human driver operating the vehicle.  With the introduction of ADS, the driving tasks will increasingly shift from humans to the system.  

The agency is gathering information to support decisions about potential adaptation of regulations to address unnecessary barriers to innovative designs while ensuring that these vehicles would have equivalent levels of safety to existing safety standards.

NHTSA issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking last year on existing motor vehicle ADS regulatory barriers, and we are reviewing those comments.  We are also working on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would address FMVSS requirements in high-level ADS vehicles.  

Other rulemakings in process would identify future regulatory frameworks for ADS-equipped vehicles.

It’s important to note – All new vehicles, including ADS-equipped vehicles, are subject to NHTSA’s broad and powerful safety defect authority.

So long as a vehicle complies with our safety regulations, then developers may move ahead with new designs, but they will still be subject to NHTSA’s defect authority if the vehicle or equipment presents an unreasonable risk to safety.  

We need to be ready now to consider the many positives – and many challenges – that these new innovations will pose.  We cannot wait until these technologies are out on the market; we must plan now.

NHTSA and the Department will continue to engage stakeholders as we draft automated vehicle policies and regulations that position the United States as the world’s leader in automated vehicle technology while fulfilling our top priority and vital mission: safety.  This is evident from the Department’s newly released Ensuring American Leadership in Automated Vehicle Technologies, or AV 4.0.  

This unifies efforts in automated vehicles across the federal government, providing high-level guidance on the government’s posture towards AVs to federal agencies, innovators, and all stakeholders.

AV 4.0 is the result of extensive input from relevant stakeholders across 38 federal departments, independent agencies, commissions, and offices in the Executive Office of the President. 

In closing, innovation is advancing rapidly in the automotive sector, and the development of these technologies promises to save lives and reduce injuries on our nation’s roads.  

I invite you to comment on our open dockets, engage with our experts, and join us in our shared commitment to safety.  Thanks.