This promises to be one of NHTSA’s busiest years for enforcement and rulemaking activity. NHTSA is expected to continue its aggressive enforcement, sparked by GM’s massive ignition switch recall and the flood of follow-on recalls by GM and other manufacturers. And the agency is moving forward with research and possible rulemaking on advanced crash avoidance technologies, driver distraction, and autonomous vehicles, and with implementing enhancements to its recall processes. To reduce their compliance risks, and to prepare themselves and their products to meet these new regulatory developments, Foley clients that manufacture vehicles or motor vehicle equipment are urged to revisit their safety compliance policies and procedures and to implement regulatory monitoring programs.

Aggressive Enforcement

We expect NHTSA to continue its aggressive enforcement, with a particular emphasis on recall timeliness. Manufacturers should take note that NHTSA has asserted the maximum penalty against manufacturers at least six times since 2010, most recently in May, when GM agreed to pay the new statutory maximum of $35 million for delays in conducting the now-infamous ignition switch recall. This level of enforcement is unprecedented in NHTSA’s history. A significant new concern for manufacturers is the potential for criminal liability, as recently seen in the recent Toyota deferred prosecution agreement, which included a $1.2 billion penalty. And the industry may face new enforcement regulations and even higher penalties as a result of Congressional response to the GM ignition switch investigation and hearings. In light of these risks, it is critical that manufacturers adopt compliance policies that provide the necessary internal guidance for identifying, investigating, and reporting safety defects.

Crash Avoidance Technologies and Autonomous Vehicles

NHTSA has been carefully studying the safety benefits of various warning technologies, such as blind spot detection and advanced lighting; intervention technologies, such as lane departure prevention, crash imminent braking (CIB), and dynamic brake support (DBS); and automatic pedestrian detection and braking. It has also been studying vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications as a way to improve the effectiveness of these systems. The agency will decide next steps after analyzing research data, and if the safety benefits appear to outweigh the costs, it could soon propose requiring these systems in vehicles. The agency is also continuing to devote substantial resources to autonomous vehicle research.

Driver Distraction Guidelines

Last year, NHTSA adopted federal guidelines to address driver distraction from in-vehicle electronics. Those guidelines apply to original equipment in-vehicle electronic devices used by drivers to perform secondary tasks (such as communications, entertainment, and navigation) through visual-manual means. The agency is now considering similar guidelines for portable and aftermarket devices. While “voluntary,” these “driver distraction” guidelines will significantly influence the design and performance of such devices in future model years.

Recall Improvements

In response to Congressional mandates and the agency’s own internal review, NHTSA is rolling out significant enhancements to its recall processes this year in the pursuit of higher recall completion rates, which have historically hovered around 70 percent. These enhancements include a new VIN-based recall lookup system for consumers and new requirements governing recall communications.

A version of this article originally appeared in Automotive World, view it here.