NHTSA officials told investigators that the agency doesn’t employ any electrical engineers or software engineers.
Down on the Potomac, zingers like that go over like an ounce of catnip in a phone booth full of rowdy toms. And sure enough, the question came up at LaHood’s testimony. In fact, it came up twice. And it was the closest thing to a real “gotcha” moment in a long day of testimony.
The first time the awkwardness was broached, Rep. Bobby Rush gently asked for clarification on the point. “We have electrical engineers,” LaHood insisted. “We have 125 engineers, and some of them are electrical engineers.” He then went on to suggest that the planned funding increase for 66 new positions would help bolster these ranks. “We’re moving away from stagnation,” he concluded.
Unsatisfied with the answer, Rep Bart Stupak noted that NHTSA staff had indicated during the committee’s investigation that “NHTSA has no electric engineers… they have some engineers who have taken some classes,” before trailing away to allow LaHood to make his blustery defense. “I’m sworn to tell the truth, Mr. Chairman,” steamed LaHood. “I wouldn’t be lying about engineers, I’ll tell you that. If I’m going to lie about something, it’s not going to be engineers.” When Stupak noted his amazement that committee staff hadn’t heard that NHTSA had electrical engineers on staff and available to the Office of Defect Investigation, LaHood simply smiled and said nothing.
The issue might have been left at that, if Rep Charles Martinez hadn’t brought it up one more time. Finally, LaHood admitted the truth that he had evaded through two lines of questioning from other committee members, saying:
We have two electrical engineers
So now we know. Unfortunately, like the rest of yesterday’s hearings, responsibility for this embarrassment traces back to lax congressional oversight as much as anything else. Which might be why the most embarrassing detail was conveniently left out. As USA Today reports, 18 months ago the DOT had one employee who made more than $170,000 per year. Today, the DOT pays 1,690 employees over $170k. In light of this, the NHTSA’s blindness to the proliferation of electronic systems in automobiles is just plain unforgivable.