NHTSA Request Tops $1B; Big Push for Driverless Cars

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By Martina Barash

Feb. 9 — The safe integration of connected and autonomous vehicles is one of NHTSA's priorities under President Obama's $1.18 billion fiscal 2017 budget request for the agency.

The appropriations request for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration includes $73 million more than the President requested for operations for FY 2016, plus $200 million for the first year of a projected 10-year autonomous vehicle pilot program.

The program would cost $3.9 billion over the next decade, according to “highlights” prepared by the Transportation Department.

NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation would continue to grow under the new budget. It would receive more than $47 million, a significant bump over the $31 million sought for FY 2016.

That would allow the office to identify defects quickly, hasten remedies and make sure the public is informed effectively, according to an associated DOT budget document.

The budget proposes to create a $250 million account within NHTSA's budget for operations and research related to vehicle safety programs, including defects investigations, safety recalls and research projects.

Among these continuing research projects are “standards and technologies to improve vehicle crashworthiness and crash avoidance, with emphasis on reducing crashes through vehicle-to-vehicle communication” and other systems, the budget document says.

Other recommendations include $37.6 million for crash data collection, $35 million for the New Car Assessment Program—which determines cars' crash worthiness and rollover safety—and $55.6 million for autonomous-vehicle research and testing.

Consumer Group Notes Significant Bumps

“DOT did ask for some significant increases,” Jackie Gillan of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a consumer organization, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 9.

She pointed to research requests and also funding for NCAP and the defect investigations office, which she said were approximately double what the agency was given in FY 2016.

After oversight hearings on Capitol Hill and “the exposure of problems at the agency,” the funding request is “a positive step,” Gillan said.

Congressional lawmakers grilled agency leaders in 2015 on NHTSA's handling of high-profile recalls including, in particular, those over faulty Takata air bags that can explode and send shrapnel into occupants.

Another large-scale recall for which NHTSA faced continued criticism was its treatment of problem ignition switches in General Motors vehicles.

The unprecedented recalls were a “wake-up call,” Gillan said. The problems “can only be solved if NHTSA has sufficient reserves,” she said.

Gillan said the group has one concern with the budget: that the focus on the “car of tomorrow,” which is very important because of its potential to reduce deaths and injuries, not take NHTSA's attention away from “the car of today.”

Total 2015 injury and fatality estimates are up over previous years, she said. The agency should make existing safety technology standard, including automatic braking and lane departure warnings, she said.

Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Auto Alliance, which represents a dozen leading automakers including GM, said his group was still reviewing the budget.

Efforts to contact the Association of Global Automakers, which represents companies such as Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co., weren't successful.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martina S. Barash in Washington at mbarash@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at spatrick@bna.com

For More Information

The DOT budget is available at http://src.bna.com/cyf.

The associated budget document is available at http://src.bna.com/cyh.

The DOT highlights document is available at http://src.bna.com/cyi.