Biden Nominates Steven Cliff to Steer NHTSA

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s deputy administrator since February is expected to be President Joe Biden’s pick to head the auto safety group.

The nomination was confirmed Tuesday for Steven Cliff, who has played a vital role in a proposed rewriting of fuel economy standards for the U.S. through 2026.

Cliff previously served as deputy executive officer for the California Air Resources Board. He is in charge of the safety probe of Tesla Inc. and an investigation of 30 million vehicles that nearly a dozen automakers may have produced with unsafe airbags.

Dr. Mary “Missy” Cummings, a Duke University engineering and computer science professor and member of LIDAR’s board, will be named a senior adviser for safety at NHTSA. The agency looks forward “to leveraging her experience and leadership in safety and autonomous technologies.”

Cummings was one of the U.S. Navy’s first female fighter pilots in the late 1980s, according to an interview McKinsey & Co. did with her in September 2021. She flew A-4s and F-18s for 10 years before pursuing a Ph.D. in space systems engineering from the University of Virginia (UVA). After UVA, Cummings joined the faculty at MIT for 10 years before going to Duke.

Cummings’ comments on Twitter have created tension with Tesla because of her seemingly anti-driverless vehicle opinion. In the September interview with McKinsey & Co., Cummings explains that in the 1990s, she saw the increased use of GPS and automation in planes at the same time she saw a lot of deaths of her fellow pilots during training accidents. “And it was a stark reality that we had started to design aircraft that far exceeded the capabilities, the cognitive capabilities, of humans,” she said in the interview. This is what motivated her to get into engineering and computer science to improve technology while also considering human strengths and limitations.

Last month, the NHTSA reported an estimated 8,730 people died in vehicle crashes from January to March of 2021, compared to 7,900 deaths during the same period in 2020, a 10.5% increase. The NHTSA has blamed impaired driving, speeding, and failure to wear seat belts for increasing traffic deaths since the pandemic.

Also, last month, the NHTSA informed Tesla that the automaker must supply data regarding its autopilot system to the agency by Oct. 22. If NHTSA’s investigation finds the Tesla Autopilot system is unsafe, it may require the company to recall as many as 765,000 Teslas built between 2014 and 2021.

The NHTSA proposed in August revising the Trump administration’s reduction of Corporate Average Fuel Economy rules with a fuel efficiency increase of 8% each year from 2024 to 2026. Cliff compared the proposed reduction to taking more than 5 million vehicles off the road today.

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