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Ford's Rise Marks NHTSA's Fall

by Roger Lanctot | Mar 26, 2018

In the midst of reports of escalating human carnage unfolding on U.S. (and global) highways, Ford Motor Company has opened up a new front in the battle to enhance and advance vehicle safety. Coinciding with the news of a fatal crash involving an Uber autonomous test vehicle in Tempe, Ariz., Ford announced its plan to make a suite of safety features dubbed Ford Co-Pilot360 standard equipment on 91% of Ford vehicles in North America by 2020.

The announcement signals the onset of an organic market-driven effort on the part of car makers to compete on the basis of saving lives with advanced safety systems. It signals the rise of the safety engineers, the recognition of the importance of safety to the car buying public, and the demise of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The move signals the growing irrelevance of NHTSA in a world increasingly defined by widespread active safety system adoption and automated driving development.

The Ford initiative, which begins with the MY19 Ford Edge and Edge ST arriving this fall, will eventually extend into Ford's commercial vehicles and most global markets. The effort shifts the normal communication around vehicle performance toward active safety in the context of an industry-wide race to perfect automated driving and a regulatory environment where the leading regulatory body, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), yet lacks a leader and has taken a step back from its role of promoting safety standards and mandates.

Ford describes Co-Pilot360 as "the most advanced suite of standard driver-assist technologies," including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind spot information system, lane keeping system, rear backup camera and auto high beam lighting – a combination which the company says "other non-luxury competitors don’t offer standard in North America."

Ford's move highlights the decline and failure of the automotive regulatory regime in the U.S. Under President Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (and NHTSA Administrators David Strickland and Mark Rosekind), the frailty and limitations of NHTSA were on full display as the agency struggled to cope with investigations related to Toyota's unintended acceleration, General Motor's ignition switch failures, Volkswagen's emissions deception and Takata's airbag-related injuries. In the midst of these challenges the agency was accused of cutting backroom deals, as in the case of FCA's flawed Jeep gas tank placements and related explosions, and for lacking a strategy to combat mounting highway fatalities, now surpassing 40,000 annually.

The crowning failure arrived in the final breakdown of a decades-long effort to mandate DSRC-based (dedicated short range communication) vehicle-to-vehicle collision avoidance technology. The $700M effort fizzled out with a Notice of Proposed Rule Making at the close of the Obama Administration that landed in the hands of a Trump Administration with little stomach to promote a mandate for an expensive, unproven and widely criticized technology.

In fact, a video provided by Ford highlighting the soon-to-be-standard safety features of Ford Co-Pilot360 mimics the kind of videos used by NHTSA to promote DSRC V2V technology (which was conceived before the widespread adoption of radar and camera technologies for vehicle safety):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhn7LYw6m7I - Ford Co-Pilot360 on the Ford Edge

Secretary LaHood and his successor, Anthony Foxx, sought to short-circuit NHTSA's cumbersome regulatory infrastructure with cooperative agreements intended to accelerate the adoption of life-saving technologies, such as automatic emergency braking. The agency was able to obtain near industry-wide commitment to the adoption of AEB technology by 2022.

The alternative to this cooperative path to market for AEB, was NHTSA's mandate process likely to require vast amounts of expensive research, concluding with a mandate, requiring a comment and review period, leading to the definition of a transitional period of adoption after the final definition and acceptance of the mandate. This onerous process translated into 10 years, in the case of the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act.

The CGK Transportation Safety Act was passed by Congress in 2008 requiring NHTSA to mandate that all new cars include backup cameras. After extensive testing and comment, NHTSA issued a final ruling in 2014, stating all cars sold in the U.S. must include a backup camera by May 2018. In other words, even with legislative action, the standard-setting and mandating process required another decade.

Ford's effort accelerates by two years the adoption of AEB technology across its entire passenger vehicle line-up. And Ford has indicated it plans to sustain the momentum with continuing development of new active safety systems subject to the same accelerated path to market.

Ford says its Ford Co-Pilot360 starts with standard automatic emergency braking – called pre-collision assist with pedestrian detection - that can help drivers avoid collisions with other vehicles or pedestrians who might accidentally cross in front of the vehicle's path. The system provides warnings when a pedestrian is detected but can also brake automatically if the driver fails to respond.

The blindspot information system (BLIS) uses radar to identify a vehicle entering the blindspot and alerts the driver with a side-view mirror indicator. Cross-traffic alert can warn drivers of traffic behind when slowly backing out of a parking spot or driveway.

The lane keeping system can warn drivers of drifting, provide steering torque back to the center of the lane, and warn drivers when inattentiveness is detected.

Ford says that next year it plans to debut, in North America and Asia Pacific, automatic emergency braking for when drivers are in reverse.

The onset of market-driven adoption and proliferation of safety-related technologies likely points the way to a far more diminished role for NHTSA. The agency has failed to redefine its role beyond the realm of promoting passive safety systems such as seatbelts and airbags. The so-far unsuccessful effort related to mandating DSRC vehicle-to-vehicle technology points toward a re-evaluation of NHTSA.

NHTSA has become part of the problem - slowing the adoption and development of new life-saving technologies rather than finding ways to speed those solutions to the market. Automated driving has flipped the script.

In a world where car makers resisted regulatory oversight and failed to recognize the value and importance of safety, NHTSA's mandate was clear and its adversarial role vis-a-vis the industry well defined: sanctioning safety laggards and mandating system adoption. Ford's announcement signals an end to the era of denial in the automotive industry. NHTSA must find a new way forward in a market increasingly defined by speed. By all means, NHTSA must at least avoid being an impediment.

Safety is officially sexy - a fact borne out by Strategy Analytics' own research which shows safety as a high priority purchasing criteria for consumers throughout the world - which is the best news of all:

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