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.”
“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.