By on January 17, 2014

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While the rest of the 5,200+ media-pass holders bounced from one laser light show to another, I and Raphael Orlove ( of Jalopnik) ventured north to cover a very different automotive event. There would be no makeup counter girls, no automaker swag and the coffee came from a vending machines not Italian espresso machine. We were headed to an automotive regulatory meeting that was scheduled to take place at the same time as the Acura reveal.

The official title of the meeting was, “The Public Meeting of the U.S. –Canada Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC) Motor Vehicles Safety Standards Working Group.” The public announcement was posted on January 6, 2014 via Regulation.gov.  In that announcement it stated that to attend the meeting you were required to register 10 days prior to the event. The event took place on January 14 meaning you had to register for the event by January 4, four days before the notice was posted. Time travel?

Thankfully I was able to register and this ‘rule’ didn’t prohibit me or Orlove from attending. We were in.

An American flag waived in front of a large concrete building. The honeycomb-shaped windows looked as if they’d been cut and pasted from any one of the federal buildings in D.C. We made our way through the TSA-like security. Belt, shoes, bags – you know the drill. Security was tight here as the building was home to regional offices for the DEA, DHS, CBP and FBI.

We made our way to the 11th floor, past the Witness Protection Program Office and to a GSA conference room. We were just in time for introductions. We quietly sat in the back of the conference room and when the time came stood up and introduced ourselves.

“I’m Raphael Orlove with Jalopnik.”

“Juan Barnett with Truth About Cars.”

Having trouble hearing the lengthy titles of the attendees (Kash Ram, Director General, Road Safety and Motor Vehicle Regulation Directorate, Transportation Canada), we moved up closer, taking a seat in the front row.

Kash and his U.S. counterpart, Christopher Bonanti, Associate Administrator for Rulemaking, NHTSA, took turns updating the room, a room filled with lobbyists and automaker representatives, on the status of new and ongoing activities from their respective agencies.

The meeting itself was interesting and informative if you’re into the policy side of automotive.

For example, I wasn’t aware that in Canada the Official Languages Act makes alignment of US and Canadian safety standards for “controls and displays” very difficult because of the use of pictograms.

Another topic that came up was the use of immobilizers to get a waiver from the theft prevention standards that requires automakers to VIN-stamp various parts of a vehicle such as large panels, engine blocks, etc. NHTSA is allowed to grant one model line exemption per year for an automaker under 49 CFR Part 543. While the discussion revolved around lining up the performance standards of immobilizers (US has no performance criteria and Canada does), Mr. Bonanti did make it a point to emphasize that if stakeholders wanted to expand that exemption to include more than one model line per year, that stakeholders in the room needed to pursue a legislative change. In other words, if you want this changed, go lobby Congress.

Tires came up during the opening discussion, particularly standards associated with low rolling resistance (LRR) tires and how fuel economy information could be provided to consumers to make them aware of the benefit associated with LRR tires. This could get very tricky, especially from an OEM packing perspective. If automakers are required to breakout LRR MPG numbers on a per vehicle basis, what’s to say it won’t happen with other options?

“I want a rear wing, but the -0.29 MPG is really holding me back.”

On the topic of tires we also learned that the track at NHTSA’s UTQG Test Facility in San Angelo, Texas was destroyed by flooding. Water got under the track and lifted the asphalt making the track unusable.

The speakers got further into bus safety and larger vehicle carrier at which point I started to tune out as I don’t really follow commercial vehicles and Orlove was drafting a very fascinating image of a bus and car colliding, flames and all.

From here things got strange.

During the midday break, Orlove and I hit up the vending machine in search of caffeine. The NHTSA official, Mr. Bonanti, stood next to us coaxing the finest coffee from a 1983 COFFEE EXPRESS machine. He asked, “What organization are you guys from?” We responded, Jalopnik and TruthAboutCars. He wasn’t familiar with the groups. Then Orlove said, “Were with the media.”

Silence.

“Uh, I didn’t know media was here,” said Mr. Bonanti. He asked the nearest person to him, “Did you know media was in the room?” You would have thought we had stumbled into the witness protection office by accident and were tweeting people’s new identities to the public. (I was asked if I was tweeting the meeting. And yes, of course I was tweeting the meeting.)

What are they hiding?

This was a public meeting, but there wasn’t a single person from the public. A part of me thinks that’s how they, the government and ‘stakeholders’, prefer these types of meetings to be held. The announcement was posted days before the event, to include an RVSP date that had passed. It was held in a remote federal building on the same time and day that the automotive media had to cover new vehicle reveals.

Behind closed doors is exactly the opposite of how people like Elon Musk want to handle regulators and for that, people like Karl Brauer of Kelly Blue Book call him a “rookie in the car business.” But are Elon, and Sergio Marchionne, who had a public disagreement with NHTSA on Jeep fires, truly ‘rookies in the car business’? Or are they pioneering something much bigger?

We live in a time when the public can be the media (like me), where automakers speak directly to the public with their data, unafraid of the government, presenting their side of the story for the public to judge.

The government isn’t always right. As people trust government less and less, could we see more brands emerge from the shadows of small federal meeting rooms and take their issues directly to the public bypassing the regulators all together?

You say rookie, I say calculated transparency, a transparency we could all benefit from.

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30 Comments on “NAIAS 2014: TTAC And Jalopnik Explore The Closed Door World Of Regulatory Meetings...”


  • avatar
    Kinosh

    NHTSA (along with other standards bodies) is usually pretty good about being reasonable with their requirements. The issue stems from the fact that most people are in no way qualified to give opinions on these issues.

    Plus, they’re boring as hell. Can you imagine what the meetings that eventually set the factors of safety for boilers at 20x looked like? Frankly, the public doesn’t really need to get involved with the technical aspects, just as I don’t need to get involved with financial reform laws. It’s not my area of expertise and would only serve to slow down the process.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Good points all and I am glad you went .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Pch101

    The potential problem for regulators and automakers alike is to have an ignorant crank who grossly misinterprets the proceedings and provides misleading reports to the public.

    In any case, they need to get things done, and it’s just easier to make progress when the people in the room know what they’re talking about.

    Holding the meeting during the auto show is a sensible thing to do, as there are already plenty of people there from the industry who have flown in for the big event.

    • 0 avatar
      Juan Barnett

      You are advocating that the public be omitted from the process all together to allow the people who know what they are talking about make he decisions for the more ignorant. Is that right?

      Also, if you want to clarify any grossly incorrect information here, please, I would welcome clarification as this isn’t my lane. I’m likely one of those ignorant cranks.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        It would be nice if the public was informed enough to offer useful input (and cared enough to become informed), and if the press knew enough to cover them properly.

        But when it comes to these technical matters, neither the press nor the public bring much to the table And if you’re going to be dealing with auto safety, that can be a particularly difficult issue if someone confuses a prudent cost-benefit decision with a desire to kill children in order to save money, for example.

        If the internet teaches us anything, it’s that there is a segment of the population that is good at distorting and misinterpreting information. (You’ll even find some of them in the comments section of this website.) They often cite lousy sources even though the sources aren’t credible, and they misinterpret credible materials in a way that show that they have no clue about what it is that they’re reading.

        This is an annoyance to people who actually know what they’re talking about. And let’s face it, there aren’t that many people who are going to be knowledgable enough about automotive safety to offer useful insight when crafting regulations.

        • 0 avatar
          ravenchris

          Wow, right out of Ruggles playbook.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            Ruggles’ business is quite easy to understand. Nothing in common with this at all.

            The backup camera legislation that Congress passed and NHTSA obviously doesn’t like an example of the problem. The agency studies the issue and finds that the cameras are a poor use of funds. Yet we end up with the regulation, anyway, because a few excitable people decided that it was a good idea, in spite of the evidence that says otherwise.

            We have safety decisions, speed limit choices, etc. being made by people who know nothing about them and who are too lazy to learn. Why should ignorant people be in the business of creating new law?

          • 0 avatar
            Juan Barnett

            The camera issue is one I’ve written about quite a bit. I’ll dig up one of my old posts and share it here later tonight. You are correct though, a few excited members of Congress rallied behind a single death pushing legislation through that will eventually result in some change to rear visbility standards (FMVSS 111).

          • 0 avatar
            racer-esq.

            All we need is a philosopher king. People been using your arguments against openness and democracy since Plato. That the public will not be able to understand it is either the first or second most popular excuse people use to protect their corruption and avoid accountability. How soon until the NHTSA says that hearings have to be classified so that terrorists cannot discovery car’s weak points.

            The agency that, after decades, still does not require amber rear turn signals because of aesthetic design protests from domestic automakers, despite all of the massively expensive things that it does require, is not beyond public scrutiny.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            If people make a good faith effort to learn about these things, then their input can be useful.

            But when all they do is squawk, then they aren’t to be taken seriously.

          • 0 avatar
            krhodes1

            @Racer-esq

            Enlightened despotism is probably the best form of government, but they are damned hard to come by.

            I have to agree with PCH on this one – Joe six-pack does not have the qualifications to have an opinion on much of anything technical. And 99% of the time, I am as much Joe Six-pack as the next guy.

  • avatar
    ravenchris

    JB, please remain an informed crank that provides balanced reporting.

  • avatar
    Nick 2012

    This was a good piece and I would like to read more about how sausage is made. Don’t be afraid to complain when agencies fail to follow their own rules regarding notices of meetings, either. That’s why they are there.

  • avatar
    old fart

    Would be nice to see a regular coverage of these meetings, to see what’s behind the closed doors.

  • avatar
    sfvarholy

    Having been an attorney in a previous life and attended regulatory meetings and hearings, usually there is no one in attendance other than the regulators and perhaps counsel for an organization with an interest in the meeting subject.

    As your attendance demonstrates, it was not closed-door. You found out about the meeting and you attended. The public at large usually has no interest in attending the proceedings and does not take the effort to learn about the meeting or haul their butt to attend unless they are super-fired about about the topic.

    Most regulatory meetings and hearings are dry and boring to most folks and most are not even of interest to the media, hence their surprise that any members of the media were there.

    In my experience, most bureaucrats would be pleased that anyone besides themselves and the regulated took even a slightest interest in what they do.

    • 0 avatar
      Juan Barnett

      “most bureaucrats would be pleased that anyone besides themselves and the regulated took even a slightest interest in what they do.” – Trust me. The officials at this meeting weren’t happy to see us and said, “had I known the media was in the room I might have toned things down a bit.” Granted, his tone during the meeting nor did content come off as newsworthy, but the reaction made me laugh a little. What was interesting was even with all the information that had been provided 2.5hrs leading up to the Q&A not one person had a comment or question. Curious if the media being there in any way made the lobbyist in the room a bit more hesistant to speak up on behalf of their client/automaker.

    • 0 avatar
      Madroc

      My thoughts exactly. And the surprise that there was media was present just *might* not mean that the presenting engineer had something ominous to hide. It might just mean that they would have had someone from Public Affairs in the room and wouldn’t have worn the shirt with the mustard stain.

      The meeting date and time was published and the meeting was open to the public. Notwithstanding the glitch with the RSVP date (the purpose of which is probably so the meeting organizer knows how big a conference room to reserve), the two bloggers were able to attend and tweet. In what sense is this not transparent?

      Sheesh.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    “let the experts do it, unmolested” is kinda like the NSA claiming the utility of their data dragnet, notwithstanding the successful bombing of the Boston Marathon, apparently, by people who were known to be questionable.

    Missing from PCH101′s analysis is the fact that, in this country at least, all such decisions are political . . . because it is politics (legislation by elected representatives) that allows it to happen in the first place. To take a notorious example: the national 55 mph speed limit was enacted in 1974 as sort of a “rough justice” conservation measure; and it’s easy to demonstrate that all motor vehicles use less fuel if they go slower. It also had the unadvertised effect of reducing the number of traffic fatalities, presumably by reducing the severity of crashes. Despite all of that, the public wanted the limit eliminated, which it finally was.

    A second point is that the “science” behind these decisions is much less than exact. The typical cost-benefit analysis conceals a mare’s nest of assumptions, many of them unproven.

    That said, I do agree with what I think is one of Pch101′s points — the risk of a noisy crank forcing something that doesn’t really make sense. His example is back-up cameras (which, I agree, are a poor substitute for vehicles designed for proper all around visibility).

    My example would be increasingly low BAC limits, driven by MADD. I believe the statistical evidence is that the vast majority of alcohol-related traffic fatalities are caused by people whose BAC is many times over any statutory limit and that there’s no evidence that reducing the limit further than what it’s been for decades will cause any reduction in fatalities (i.e. that people whose BAC is more than the new low limit, but less than the old limit cause accidents).

    So the effect of all of this is simply to enrich the coffers of the states (which run DUI dragnets) with fines, insurance companies (who can justify a higher premium based on a DUI) and DUI lawyers who specialize in getting their clients off or “diverted” into education programs that avoid the insurance hit.

    The anecdote about the pictograms gives substance to what I expected were significant costs imposed by Canada’s forced bilingualism. I appreciate the historical roots that make that important for Canadians, but I fear a creeping but historically unrelated trend in the U.S. towards bilingualism with Spanish, which, if mandated, will impose significant costs here.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      The NSA doesn’t provide a particularly good metaphor for this. We’re not talking about general fundamental rights of privacy, but about variations in specific technical details, the nuances of which won’t be understood by very many people outside of a narrow industry.

      The average voter’s opinion about whether we should have a space program is relevant to the democratic process. But you don’t want the average voter creating design specifications for spacecraft, particularly if you don’t want your astronauts to die.

    • 0 avatar
      piffpaff

      If all countries used the pictograms instead of text, multilingualism would not be an issue. My understanding is that it is the US insists on having text instead of pictograms. This might be an instance of the US avoiding to accept the standards of the rest of the industrialized world as regards cars.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        This. *WE* are the aberration in this, not the Canadians.

        If you are too stupid to understand the international symbol for a brake warning light, please turn in your license. Because you are also probably too stupid to understand what a lit up red “BRAKE” light means. Then again, the average driver has no clue what any of the pretty lights on the dash mean anyway. And half of all drivers are below average by definition.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    What is needed at these meeting is the media to be available to attend.

    But, this is a big but, the media person should have some form of knowledge about what is being proposed and the impacts it will have. The media person should be a subject matter expert (SME), or you will just recieve much sensationalist reporting and opinion and not accurate information.

    Safety is important, but as can be shown by data and statistics not all agencies concentrate and apply their efforts efficiently. The NHTSA appears to be failing and could make better improvements that are cheaper for the US.

    Look at the US road fatality statistics. They are improving, but still have a considerable way to go to be equivalent to many other OECD economies.

    Simple issues like standardisation between states, better training/certification, and a definite review of the US licencing system is needed to reduce road fatalities even further.

    There are to many people in the US with inadequate training driving to large a vehicle for starters.

    This would benefit the US as a whole financially. Every road death cost millions of dollars to a nation, nothing to be sneezed at.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Millions?? Hardly. I would be more concerned about serious injuries than deaths. HOW much is Jack’s recent accident going to cost by the time he and his friend are back to 99%? They will probably never reach 100%. Dead is cheaper. Someone else just gets your job.

      One thing to keep in mind about the US. It is a huge country with a large part of the population spread out across very rural areas. OZ is a larger country, but you only have a few people who are pretty concentrated along the coasts. This means that there are a LOT of accidents that happen a LONG way from a trauma center compared to other countries. In my own state, there are only a couple Level 1 trauma centers. You could easily have a bad accident and be an hour plus by HELICOPTER away from top-notch emergency care. And a long way from EMS just getting to you to even START care. So you likely will die. And those isolated rural roads are the ones where the bad accidents happen, not the interstate highways. Just yesterday a couple got run over by a log truck in far rural Maine. They didn’t make it, died on the way to the hospital after being cut out of their SUV. Maybe if it had happened in Portland they might have.

      And a callout to Jack – I would love to hear your and/or a professional automotive engineers opinion of how well your Lincoln did in the crash. Would you have been better off in a newer car? My semi-educated non-professional opinionated guess thinks so, but I would love to hear from a professional. Personally, I know folks who have had seemingly MUCH worse accidents in Saabs and Volvos who walked away with bruises, and one woman who literally tried to move a bridge abutment in her sleep in a Mercedes at highway speed and only broke her leg. Lady luck is a primary factor in any accident, of course.

      Get well, man! Thank God for modern EMS and hospital care.

      • 0 avatar
        Big Al from Oz

        @krhodes
        Wow, you aren’t to familiar about Australia.

        When a person is involved in an accident and requires specialised treatment in Australia they generally have to go to a capital city in Australia. A few years ago my ex had to go to Adelaide for a stent from near Darwin.

        That’s sort of a trip from Chicago to Miami.

        Capital cities in Australia represent only 60% of our population. But smaller centres like Hobart, Darwin and regional centres have limited capapbility. So in effect we have only 6 centres with that can handle any emergency.

        Unfortunately when looking at statics and data you can’t look at the emotional ‘data’. Sympathy and empathy is generally a human reaction.

        I was looking at the raw data. You can take that whatever way you want.

        It’s a real pity about Jack, but as Forest Gump said ‘$hit happens’ and this stuff is out of our control.

        We can only change safety through a cultural change. If their isn’t a will in the community then the necessary changes will not occur.

  • avatar
    Beerboy12

    I am not to surprised that the regular attendees don’t want the public involved. Two things surprise me though. One is that they go to the lengths they do to “discourage” the public and the second is much more concerning. Why is the media and the public so disinterested? How long has this being going on?

    Congratulations to Juan and Raphael for taking interest and being proactive, The media is in need of more like them and the public needs to wake up…

  • avatar
    jim brewer

    You mean the public would throng to hear about regulations for low rolling resistance tires it they could? The reason the bureaucrats were so concerned that the media was there is because they would have guarded their language a little better. What you hear as being dry as dust could easily be seen as flippant in the world of government.

    We don’t have old-fashioned ‘beat’ reporters much anymore who go to these meetings and generally know what is going on. So if something sensational comes up with Chrysler and recalls, for example, the guy sent to cover has very little knowledge of the agency, the past practices of the agency or other context is missing.

    • 0 avatar
      WildcatMatt

      The statement regarding the demise of the beat reporter is more important than most people realize. For meetings like this, in the absence of a true Subject Matter Expert (SME) the next best thing is a beat reporter who has learned enough to know what matters in a given environment through a combination of context, exposure, and familiarity.

      If I may, an anecdote from college:

      I was working as a broadcast reporter for the college station at a time when the assignment editor didn’t believe in beats (which does make some sense in a college environment where they want students to experience a variety of situations). I went in to a city council meeting where a resident brought up some grievance about her city water service and the city administrator had been very short with her.

      Now, admittedly part of this was my youthful naivete, but I thought I had something to work with as far as a story and I interviewed her… Only to find out afterward when I tried to pursue the lead that the woman was a crank and a regular fixture at these meetings. Had this been my beat I may not have understood the minutiae of the city engineer’s rebuttal to that woman, but at least I would have known to turn up my BS filter when she walked up to the microphone.

  • avatar
    WheelMcCoy

    I’m glad TTAC and Jalopnik attended; it was enlightening. And while “the government isn’t always right”, neither is the media. The ABC News “demo” of Toyota’s unintended acceleration comes to mind.

    Like others said, reporters, journalists, and bloggers should have a working knowledge of the subject matter. Likewise, attendees from the public at large.


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