WASHINGTON – The federal government's crash test standards have not been updated for a decade, but safety technology has evolved in leaps and bounds during that time. That has motivated an industry group representing leading automakers to call on the government to bring its program up to par with current practices.
The New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) evaluates the safety of new vehicles and provides public ratings for consumers. As the industry has outpaced regulators in safety technology, critics have argued that the ratings have become close to meaningless, with the majority of 2020 model vehicles receiving five-star ratings and the rest receiving four stars.
The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents automakers selling vehicles in the United States, recommends that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) include technology now commonly included in new vehicles in those tests.
Forward collision warnings, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian automatic emergency braking, lane departure warnings and assistance technology for staying within lanes, and automatic high beam headlamps should all be evaluated by regulators, the group said.
"We are moving from not only just a focus on crashworthiness, but a focus on crash avoidance, and it's important that the NCAP program do the same," said John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance. "It's really important that the NCAP program remain modern, and we think it's ideal for us to start by kick-starting this modernization with key technologies that have proved safety benefits."
NHTSA has said it plans to update the program to include similar technology and announced earlier this year, shortly before President Joe Biden took office, that it was seeking public comment on the proposed changes.
But the Alliance recommends that the agency consider including more than updated tech in its new rules: NHTSA should regularly identify new safety technologies to be included in the rating system in the long term; meet with automakers and other relevant groups annually to discuss research and development; regularly evaluate how effective the program is, and update the program every three years, like similar programs in Europe, the group said.
"We're taking a broader, more strategic approach," Bozzella said. "There is an opportunity to establish midterm and long-term road maps, as well as a process to continually make sure that NCAP stays updated."
NHTSA did not immediately return a request for comment on the Alliance's recommendations.
Walkers should count, too
The group's push for more advanced technological assessments comes alongside growing calls for the program to better take into account vehicles' safety for pedestrians as well as occupants.
Last year, the Government Accountability Office noted that pedestrian deaths had grown by 43% between 2008 and 2018, driven in part by consumers' shifting preferences for bigger pickup trucks and SUVs.
The office found that NHTSA doesn't regularly collect detailed information on pedestrian injuries and hadn't determined whether to include pedestrian safety tests in the NCAP program, despite proposing the tests be included four years earlier.
Several automakers told the accountability agency that NHTSA failed to regularly communicate with the companies on pedestrian safety tests, which made it challenging to develop vehicles that would potentially meet the standards.
"The industry, and consumers, are generally provided little advance indication of future NCAP updates or what new elements and ratings will be adopted," the Alliance wrote in a report on the recommendations.
"Given the significant lead time necessary to implement new safety technology or re-engineer existing performance, a more predictable program is needed to maximize the potential benefits of NCAP."