NHTSA’s King Side-Steps Keyless Question

Heidi King is probably going to be the 16th administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But this week, the agency’s current deputy administrator took some heat from the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee at her confirmation hearing over a variety of unresolved safety issues – including keyless ignition.

Under intense questioning from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) about the “defective” design on most keyless ignition systems, King declined to commit to moving the agency forward to a Final Rule on Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114 Anti-Theft and Rollaway. The agency published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in December 2011, which would have required automakers – among other things – to install louder, and more uniform audible warnings to alert a driver who exits with the fob and inadvertently leaves the vehicle engine running.

King avoided a direct answer to Blumenthal’s request that the agency resume rulemaking, investigate all of the carbon monoxide poisoning deaths attributed to keyless vehicles, and raise the profile of this issue among the public.

“Absolutely on number 3,” King said. But she was purposefully vague about agreeing to further actions.

“As you know, it’s heartbreaking, but hundreds of Americans die from carbon monoxide poisoning each year because of combustion and confined spaces, she said, later adding: “We will continue to [sic] scrutinizing the facts and acting as we are allowed within the law.”

Safety Research & Strategies has been studying the carbon monoxide and rollaway hazard issues introduced by keyless systems with push-button ignitions since 2009 and sharing its findings with NHTSA. The Safety Record has been reporting on issue since 2011, breaking stories about the 2014 NHTSA compliance probe into keyless systems ( NHTSA Opens Smart Key Compliance Probe)  and more recently, GM’s quiet implementation of automatic engine shutdown feature (General Motors Quietly Installs Keyless Engine Shutoff ). But it was a recent front-page New York Times story on the safety issues that keyless ignition that re-ignited the discussion about finalizing the rule and investigating CO deaths tied to keyless ignitions.

One note The Safety Record thought that everyone ought to hit a lot harder is that three automakers that we know of – Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler – have installed automatic engine shutoffs on at least some of their keyless models. Manufacturers hated NHTSA’s 2011 proposal because they thought the decibel level for the audible alert that would be required was too loud. Automakers are loathe to implement features that annoy their customers – it’s a thread of concern that continues to show up. That’s why an automatic engine shut-off, set for a reasonable length of time is a good engineered solution. The software fix is inexpensive modern vehicles contain all the required hardware to make this happen.  

In 2011, the agency rejected the possibility of such a regulation, arguing that they couldn’t pick an interval after which the vehicle would automatically shut down. But maybe it’s time to re-think that. Or maybe the agency will follow a time-honored tradition and wait long enough for 90 percent of the industry to do it voluntarily, and then publish a new Final Rule.

King is slated to replace former NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind, who resigned nearly 16 months ago, after two years at the agency’s helm. While there, he garnered a reputation as the most aggressive enforcement chief since Joan Claybrook in the 1970s. Under Rosekind, the agency racked up record civil penalties, and took over administering the massive Takata inflator defect recalls.

Yet, Rosekind left a raft of unfinished items, prompting Blumenthal and Sen. Ed Markey (D Mass.) to ask King about the status of 10 Congressionally mandated rulemakings on issues ranging from motorcoach safety to side impact tests for children’s car seats.

President Donald Trump appointed King as Deputy Administrator in October, and she has been acting as interim head of the agency since. An economist and research scientist, King returned to government service after a three year stint as Global Director of Environmental Health and Safety Risk for GE Capital. King also worked as a Regulatory Policy Analyst for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) from 1998 to 2000 and from 2007 to 2011, under Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. She was the Chief Economist for U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee from 2011 to 2013.

Some in industry are prepared to welcome her. At a recent tire industry conference, Tracey Norberg, of the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association praised King, noting her “experience with economics and science. When they brief her, she asks tough questions,” Norberg said. “It will be good to make sure there are policies that benefit industry move forward.”