King's nomination hearing for NHTSA chief hits on lethal airbags

King's nomination hearing for NHTSA chief hits on lethal airbags

Heidi King, presidential nominee for administrator of NHTSA: “You have my absolute commitment to continue to press each and every one of the manufacturers until each and every one of these dangerous airbags are replaced.”

Safety concerns surrounding Takata airbags and autonomous vehicles were the focus of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation’s Wednesday examination of Heidi King, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be NHTSA administrator.

King, currently deputy NHTSA administrator, has acted in that role since September 2017. Trump nominated King for administrator in April after the position had remained vacant for over a year.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., emphasized his expectations for King’s administration in its handling of vehicle safety.

“[NHTSA] needs to be on the front lines of detecting serious vehicle safety defects and issuing recalls,” Nelson said. “This has been an area that has been lacking for NHTSA.”

The vehicles that still have the potentially defective Takata airbags are “nothing more than a ticking time bomb,” Nelson said, referring to the recall of the company’s inflators, which can age, inflate with too much force and release metal fragments, fatally injuring drivers. At least 22 deaths and more than 290 injuries worldwide are linked to Takata inflators.

“NHTSA has really not gotten the plan together of how we are going to get these additional 1.3 million vehicles that are out there on the road in, so [their airbag] can be replaced,” Nelson said. “I hope Ms. King will provide a detailed plan on how she will demand accountability of those involved in the Takata fiasco and finally implement a real strategy to help drivers get safe airbags in their vehicles.”

Senator questions

Nelson later asked for King’s immediate commitment to asking auto manufacturers to submit detailed public plans with specific steps for the Takata recall. The question came following the release of a letter King sent to a number of auto companies on May 3, including Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, requesting to set meetings to expedite their plans with regard to the recall.

“I am deeply concerned that, despite this progress, millions more vehicles with defective Takata airbag inflators remain on the roads,” King wrote in the letter, released Monday. “We look forward to hearing your plans to complete the remedy program for these highest priority vehicles and your proposed timeline for doing so.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, King said the overall completion rate of the recall is 58 percent, up from 35 percent the year prior, but said the progress is “not good enough.”

However, King was hesitant to request companies release potentially confidential business plans.

“Within the constraints of law, I realize with manufacturers and with private enterprises there may be confidential business information or other information that they would either not be allowed or should not release, and I would not commit to compelling them to release confidential business information,” King said. “But you have my absolute commitment to continue to press each and every one of the manufacturers until each and every one of these dangerous airbags are replaced.”

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., asked King about ensuring federal, state and local infrastructure is prepared to accommodate autonomous vehicles. King offered plans for the automated driving systems initiative, A Vision for Safety 2.0.

“A Vision for Safety would allow for transparency for how each of the manufacturers are assuring safety, to make sure the manufacturers and developers tell us how they ensure they’re not crashing into things, protect the occupants, get where they’re going and obey traffic laws,” King said.

The remainder of the meeting’s questions concerned climate change, drug-impaired driving and the consumer complaint review process.

Following Wednesday’s meeting, King’s nomination will have to be approved by the U.S. Senate. The Senate committee is scheduled to hold an executive session to consider King’s nomination May 22.

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