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5 Priorities Auto Regulators Need to Address Right Now

With NHTSA's head departing, experts and safety advocates say agency must take action to regain leadership role

An aerial view of a car.

Heidi King, the top U.S. regulator of the auto industry, is departing her post at the end of the month. 

Nominated by President Donald Trump to run the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration but never confirmed by the Senate, King leaves her post with the nation’s highway death toll at a stubbornly high level, coupled with a notable uptick in pedestrian deaths. While she never got the Senate’s okay to run NHTSA permanently, King has been the top acting official at the agency for more than two years and has been setting its agenda. 

NHTSA’s chief mission is to save lives on U.S. roadways. There were 37,133 fatalities in 2017. Over the past two years, much of the agency’s attention has been devoted to freezing fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks sold in the U.S. after the 2021 model year. (See Consumer Reports article here and Consumer Reports statement here.) Last year, CR reported that NHTSA’s defect investigators launched fewer probes than at any time in the agency’s history. 

“There are scores of federal agencies, but few have as important an impact on consumers than NHTSA,” says Jack Gillis, president of the Consumer Federation of America. “It’s deplorable that NHTSA has been asleep at the switch for so long.” 

NHTSA has missed several opportunities to take action that could save lives on U.S. highways, according to experts at Consumer Reports, other safety groups, and industry observers. It’s also years behind in meeting specific deadlines on child safety measures written into law by Congress. 

Over the past two and a half years, more than 7.5 million Americans were injured and more than 90,000 were killed in traffic crashes, and yet Department of Transportation leadership has failed to finalize, or even propose, a single significant lifesaving vehicle safety standard, says David Friedman, vice president for advocacy at Consumer Reports. 

“That’s not putting safety first,” says Friedman, who was deputy administrator at NHTSA from 2013 to 2015. “It can be hard for NHTSA to get things done under the best of circumstances, so it has been really disappointing to see DOT leaders apparently shelve some of their most important tools, like new safety standards, strong enforcement, and the bully pulpit.”

More on Advanced Car Safety Systems

CR and other auto-safety experts think the agency hasn’t been doing enough to set needed standards in five key areas: self-driving cars, crash-test ratings, vehicle-to-everything communications, child safety, and advanced driver-assistance technology. Moving automakers to act in all five of these priority areas has the potential to save lives on the highways. Below, we discuss why each matters and what NHTSA could be doing.

NHTSA doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It’s a small agency with a big mandate. It must carefully balance the likely benefits of any new industry requirements with the money automakers will have to spend on rolling out the technology. It’s a part of a larger DOT and an administration that has a philosophy of listening to industry and removing the burden of regulation wherever possible. 

In a written statement to CR, NHTSA said it has been doing the painstaking research needed to justify future regulations and that issuing rules before completing the work could lead to “unintended or negative safety consequences.” 

In announcing King’s resignation, the DOT didn’t specify why she’s leaving or where she’s going. James Owens, the deputy general counsel at the DOT, has been tabbed to take over as deputy administrator and acting head of NHTSA. For Owens, or for whoever is nominated to head the agency going forward, here are five priority areas where NHTSA could make a meaningful, lasting impact for consumers.

Finish Congressional Mandates on Child Safety

Congress has ordered NHTSA, time and again, to create rules that could improve the safety of children traveling in cars. NHTSA is five years behind in finishing a rule that would improve the performance of child restraints in side-impact crashes and three years behind on developing an updated rule for child restraints in frontal crashes.

Janette Fennell, founder and president of KidsAndCars.org, a safety watchdog group, compares these delays to the years it took the agency to mandate rearview cameras, which has been shown to save lives. The camera rule didn’t happen until after safety groups sued. 

“Successfully getting Congress to pass a law that requires DOT to issue a regulation isn’t enough anymore,” Fennell says. “Unfortunately, instead of writing performance standards, DOT appears to be delaying the addition of safety technology to vehicles, and they are more concerned about what the auto industry finds the most profitable.” 

NHTSA could also look at devices to make it less likely that children perish in hot cars. Automakers such as GM, Hyundai, Kia, and Nissan are voluntarily installing rear-seat reminder systems, demonstrating that affordable technology is available today to help prevent children’s deaths. Honda and Subaru say they’re working on systems to be available soon. Congress is working on legislation that would put new requirements on the automakers. Meanwhile, at least 32 children have died from heatstroke in cars this year, after an all-time high of 53 last year. 

It’s true that fewer children are dying because of vehicle-related hazards, but the strides have come mainly because of improved education about the proper use and importance of child restraints and also state laws requiring child safety seats, says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center. And some federal standards, such as for some crash tests, haven’t kept pace with current technology or auto design. For example, some crash tests are conducted using just a lap seat belt instead of a three-point lap-and-shoulder belt, Stockburger says. 

“It’s time for an update to assure families that their child seats meet appropriate minimum performance requirements that reflect the cars they drive and the conditions that have the greatest potential for improving their safety,” she says.

NHTSA said it needs to conduct the appropriate research before completing the child safety regulations, “rather than issuing uninformed standards on a time line that failed to account for design and execution of the appropriate engineering studies that would assure safety.” The agency said that it has recently completed or “made significant progress” on the research and that it “looks forward to  advancing the rulemaking process based upon the findings.”

Prioritize Standards for Autonomous Vehicles

The U.S. DOT issued its third set of voluntary guidelines late last year intended for automakers moving toward deploying self-driving cars. The department has taken a hands-off approach, saying that it doesn’t want to get in the way of industry innovations. But that approach emphasizes getting cars to market quickly, rather than putting safety first, says CR’s Friedman. 

Safety groups, including CR, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the Consumer Federation of America, and the Center for Auto Safety, have called for minimum federal standards for self-driving vehicles before they’re allowed to be broadly deployed on public roads. In addition, companies should be required to share safety data with regulators, crash investigators, and the public, these advocates say. That’s not currently a requirement. And NHTSA needs to take a more direct role in ensuring that all vehicles are protected from computer hacking attacks, the advocates say.

The danger in rolling out prototype automated vehicles (AVs) too quickly was underscored last year when an Uber car in self-driving mode struck and killed a woman after failing to detect her as she walked a bicycle across a roadway in Tempe, Ariz. More crashes and fatalities are likely to make consumers less trusting of AVs, and that could undermine the effort to launch this potentially lifesaving technology, Friedman says. 

NHTSA could establish rules of the road for companies testing on public streets and provide safety standards and clearer guidance, especially if AVs are given exemptions from current federal vehicle safety standards. Self-driving technology has the potential to save lives, but the technology must be vetted in a responsible way, safety groups say.

“The bottom line is these products do represent a technological vaccine that could dramatically reduce the toll that autos have on public health,” says Gillis at the Consumer Federation of America. “But like any vaccine, they need to be tested thoroughly and standards need to be written.” 

In its statement to CR, NHTSA said setting safety standards for technology that is still under development would be premature. “In addition to safety standards, NHTSA has broad enforcement authorities that we will not hesitate to use appropriately if an unreasonable risk to safety emerges,” the agency said.

Push Automakers to Make Proven Safety Features Standard

In 2016, NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety brokered a voluntary agreement among 20 automakers to make automatic emergency braking (AEB) standard equipment on almost all models by 2022. But this should be expanded to include other proven crash-avoidance technologies, such as pedestrian detection and blind spot warning. 

Consumer Reports believes automakers should make these systems standard equipment on all models. And NHTSA should use its influence and the threat of regulation to make that happen, CR has said.

“The voluntary agreement has put us on track to see AEB standard on virtually every new car by 2022,” says Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. “Let’s build on that. With rising pedestrian fatalities, a time line for providing standard pedestrian detection is the next logical step.”

CR’s technical and policy experts have been meeting with King and other officials at NHTSA over the past two years, sharing data and discussing ways to make several of these systems more widespread in the marketplace. 

NHTSA says it’s working to incorporate four crash-avoidance technologies as part of its crash-test ratings. King responded directly to CR’s questions about these technologies, saying NHTSA was “pleased to be engaged in an active partnership with Consumer Reports to understand consumer experience with these emerging technologies.” She said the dialog added to the agency’s understanding of the engineering and of how consumers use safety technology.  

It’s not enough for automakers to come up with a marketing name and then call something a safety system, says Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. NHTSA should set minimum performance standards, so consumers are assured that the technology on the vehicle they’re paying for will actually reduce the likelihood of a crash, she says. CR also supports performance standards for advanced safety technologies.

Mandate Connected-Vehicle Equipment

Vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology could create a world where cars would be talking to each other and the surrounding infrastructure, and sending out signals on speed, direction, and location—overcoming the limits of human senses and allowing cars to act for themselves if needed.

NHTSA and safety groups have hailed V2X as a breakthrough on a par with the arrival of seat belts or airbags in cars. It was seen as one of the few immediately available ways to prevent large numbers of traffic fatalities each year in this country. 

NHTSA estimates that a fully deployed V2X network would save about 1,000 lives and would prevent up to 600,000 crashes each year. But for this technology to achieve its lifesaving potential, lots of cars would need to have it. NHTSA’s failure to mandate V2X transmitters added to the regulatory uncertainty cited by automakers unwilling to invest in the technology.

Now the potentially huge safety benefits of this breakthrough technology are in doubt because the Federal Communications Commission has indicated it may open up the public airwaves currently set aside for V2X to increase the spread of WiFi.  

V2X can sense the surrounding environment in ways that are impossible for the best active safety features or even future self-driving cars, says Shailen Bhatt, president and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, the nonprofit group that got the FCC to set aside airwaves for V2X communications more than 20 years ago. 

“By providing drivers with instant safety warnings of impending crash situations, V2X technologies are by far the best tool we have to reduce fatalities,” Bhatt says.

King told CR that federal transportation and communications regulators are collaborating to evaluate different technologies proposed by the automakers, infrastructure operators, and engineering experts.

Overhaul the Agency’s Crash-Test Program

NHTSA is weighing changes to its five-star safety ratings program, including ways to provide useful, practical safety information for consumers trying to compare vehicles. The crash-testing program dates back to the 1970s. Proposals to change the program have been under discussion for most of the past decade. 

Currently, the majority of vehicles tested score well—getting 4 or 5 stars in almost every test. That provides little differentiation on which models provide the greatest margins of safety. In addition, the agency is looking at ways to give credit to vehicles that use crash-avoidance technologies. Plans to modernize crash-test dummies and test for the possibility of injuries in the backseat haven’t advanced since originally proposed at the end of the last administration.

While the U.S. has stood still with its ratings program, similar efforts in Europe and Asia have made changes to incorporate the latest safety technology, including pedestrian and bicycle detection, says Chase at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “We are really falling behind,” Chase says.

Earlier this month, NHTSA documents showed that the agency was alarmed at claims Tesla was making about the safety of its Model 3 sedan. The car got five-star ratings—the agency’s highest—in all of NHTSA’s crash tests, but Tesla proclaimed that the Model 3 had the lowest probability of injury in a crash of any vehicle tested by the agency. The agency pushed back, saying Tesla was making misleading claims that couldn’t be supported by the crash-test data. Tesla’s claim is still posted on the automaker’s website.

Tesla shouldn’t be misusing the system, but the dispute underscores how out of date NHTSA’s crash-test system has become, says CR’s Friedman.

In a statement to CR, NHTSA said that modifications to the program should be based on consumers’ needs and that it’s looking at the best ways to put crash-test results on window stickers.

NHTSA said it believes the crash-testing program needs to be periodically reviewed to ensure the program is providing consumers with useful safety information about new vehicles, and it will change the program “when the available information supports modifications that improve consumer understanding of safety attributes.” It didn’t give a time line for any review.

Anti-Regulation, or Smarter Government?

Some experts say NHTSA has been behaving more cautiously in an effort to write smarter, more effective rules. 

Broadly, the Trump administration appears to be doing more thorough cost-benefit analyses before imposing new rules, so that unintended and hidden costs are better accounted for, says Rick Geddes, a professor at Cornell University and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who studies the effects of regulation.

“There’s a sense that there’s been overregulation in the past, and there’s a lot of stale regulations on the books,” Geddes says of the current administration. 

The auto industry is confident that NHTSA staff members are addressing all the highest priorities, says Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the largest trade group for automakers in the U.S. 

“NHTSA always has a big list of issues to address, and as soon as one rulemaking is completed, there is another area for attention,” Bergquist says.