Feds seal deal with automakers on car safety

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The Department of Transportation said Friday it has reached a "historic" agreement with U.S. automakers on a set of principles for safety improvements after a drastic spike in the number of car recalls in recent years. 

Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony FoxxFeds issue cybersecurity guidelines for automakers Great Lakes senators seek boost for maritime system Feds create advisory panel for self-driving cars MORE, who has called the series of auto recalls "troubling," said Friday that the Obama administration has reached an agreement with 18 auto companies on a voluntary set of reforms to reduce the likelihood of safety defects that are not reported to federal regulators. 

"We have finalized a historic agreement on a set of broad-ranging actions to help make our roads safer and help avoid the sort of safety crisis that generates the wrong kind of record-setting and headlines," Foxx said in a blog post about the agreement on the transportation department's website. 

"The commitments we make today will help catch safety defects before they explode into massive recalls," he continued. "They will help improve the quality of data that automakers and [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] analyze to identify defects today, and they will find ways to generate better data in the future." 

The agreement calls for automakers to work together with federal regulators to achieve four goals: enhancing and facilitating "proactive safety," enhancing "analysis and examination of early warning reporting data," maximizing "safety recall participation rates" and enhancing "automotive cybersecurity." 

The deal comes as automakers and highway safety regulators in the Obama administration have both come under fire after widespread recalls at companies like General Motors and Takata beginning in 2014 that involved parts that were first found to be defective years ago.

The issue of car safety was brought back into the spotlight by recent revelations that German automaker Volkswagen had been cheating federal pollution emission standards to trick regulators into believing their cars are more fuel efficient than they actually are.

Critics have attributed the spike in recalls to lax oversight of the auto industry by the Obama administration. Foxx has been meeting with the leaders of major U.S. auto companies since October in an effort to demonstrate the administration's frustration with the widespread safety defects in U.S. cars. 

Foxx said Friday the agreement that was reached by the Obama administration and most of the nation's largest car companies will change the regulatory relationship between the federal government and the auto industry. 

"This coming together of the global automotive industry with DOT and NHTSA to determine how we can make vehicles that are safer than ever before and even safer in the future — this is unprecedented," he said. 

"It was born of us gathering everyone in the same room last fall, and it was the product of an immense amount of work by the companies who have signed onto these principles and by our team at DOT," Foxx continued. 

Lawmakers who have been critical of the Obama administration's handling of the auto industry questioned whether the voluntary agreement between the Transportation Department and major car companies would be strong enough to force changes in the auto industry's safety practices. 

“The principles put forth today by the automotive industry and the federal government fall short in the one key area in what is necessary to keep American drivers safe: force," Sens. Richard BlumenthalRichard BlumenthalCalifornia National Guard official: Congress knew about bonus repayments Dems demand anti-LGBT language be taken out of defense bill Senate Dems want major women's golf event moved off Trump course MORE (D-Conn.) and Ed MarkeyEd MarkeySenate Dems want major women's golf event moved off Trump course Sanders, Dem senators press Obama to halt ND pipeline Senate Dems ask Obama to block Atlantic, Arctic offshore drilling MORE (D-Mass.) said in a joint statement. 

"Unless these commitments are legally-binding and enforceable, there is no guarantee that we can ensure that automakers and the federal government can prevent future tragedies," the lawmakers continued. "We need clear rules, not voluntary commitments. This proposal does little to advance a commitment to real reform and increased safety requirements and only continues a culture of informality between automakers and regulators that lead to the deaths hundreds of Americans from defective ignition switches, exploding airbags, vehicles that burst into flames and other deadly defects."  

Safety advocates also panned the agreement between the Obama administration and automakers, saying the deal "is a dramatic step in the wrong direction especially following a year of record recalls and an increase in motor vehicle fatalities.  
"The set of four principles is toothless, lacks any implementation authority and is worth only the cost of the paper they are written on," said Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH) Chairwoman Joan Claybrook, who is also a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator during the Carter administration in the late 1970's. 
"There is nothing preventing the auto industry from disregarding or outright violating these principles," Claybrook continued. "In fact they could be considered subterfuge to violate reporting requirements by doing 'data dumps.'" 

Foxx said Friday he is more optimistic that automakers will cooperate with federal regulators to fulfill the terms of the new agreement.  

"It’s a new way of doing business for everybody, and new ways don’t come easily," he said. "But that's what you have to do to when the mission you share — making sure Americans can get safely to and from their destination every time they get in their car — is so important." 

The agreement was signed by the U.S. Department of Transportation; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; the American Honda Motor Co. Inc.; BMW of North America, LLC; Fiat Chrysler US LLC; Ford Motor Co.; General Motors; Hyundai Motor America; Jaguar Land Rover North America LLC; Kia Motors America, Inc.; Mazda North American Operations; Mercedes–Benz USA, LLC; Mitsubishi Motors North America Inc.; Nissan North America Inc.; Porsche Cars North America Inc.; Subaru of America Inc.; Tesla Motors Inc.; Toyota Motor North America Inc.; Volkswagen Group of America Inc.; and Volvo Cars USA. 

The full agreement can be read here.