Pedestrians in NHTSA crosshairs

Image: Ford - pedestrian.jpg
Ford and all other automakers are researching pedestrian safety.

NHTSA (the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), traditionally concerned about passenger safety in car crashes, is moving toward new rulemaking on pedestrian safety. One proposed rule addresses energy-absorbing requirements of hoods and bumpers in accidents involving vehicles traveling under 40 km/h. It is on a relatively fast track. Another proposed rule, the “Quiet Car,” focuses on how to incorporate a sound warning into hybrid-electric vehicles, which would be particularly helpful to blind pedestrians.

SAE International is intimately involved in the “Quiet Car” effort. Jay Joseph, Chairman of the SAE Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians Subcommittee, explained at an NHTSA-sponsored meeting in June that his subcommittee was working toward publishing either a technical report or recommended practice by the end of 2008. That subcommittee has three task forces currently at work, including one dedicated to exploring countermeasures. Explaining the complexity of coming up with a standard on sound, Joseph said, “For example, simply adding a certain sound might work well in a suburban setting, but we have no idea if there is any benefit in a busy city street where the ambient sound levels are relatively higher.”

At that meeting, Jim Ports, NHTSA Deputy Administrator, said any new regulation dealing with “Quiet Cars”—chiefly hybrids and all-electric vehicles—would be part of the comprehensive pedestrian safety plan the agency is working on. That plan will focus on injuries to pedestrian from all cars, not just hybrids. Interestingly, the number of pedestrian deaths declined considerably between 1996 and 2006, from 5449 to 4784.

But Essie Wagner, an official in the NHTSA Safety Countermeasures Division, told those attending the “Quiet Car” meeting this summer that 4700 deaths are still way too high.

SAE became interested in the issue at the behest of groups such as the National Federation of the Blind. “New silent vehicle technology, such as that used in hybrid-electric vehicles, poses an imminent threat to the lives of all blind Americans,” said Deborah Kent Stein, Chair of the Federation’s Committee on Automobile and Pedestrian Safety.

She added that the problem is not limited to the blind. “All pedestrians, cyclists, runners, and small children use the sound of traffic to make judgments about when it is safe to step into an intersection or when navigating their neighborhoods or moving through the parking lot of the local shopping center. We will not accept this state.”

Any proposed “Quiet Car” standard from NHTSA is still on the horizon. But the proposed NHTSA standard on pedestrian safety is just around the corner. It will be based on a global technical regulation (GTR) that the World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations is expected to endorse imminently. The U.S., the European Union, and Japan are participating in development of this new international standard, which they have been tweaking for half a decade or so. The GTR essentially would mandate a number of European-developed performance head-form and leg-form tests related to energy-absorption capabilities of hoods and bumpers. The tests could also address various related components such as grille guards and hood ornaments.

Auto manufacturers want NHTSA to put the international standard into U.S. law, as long as it is relatively reasonable, which it appears to be, based on complaints from consumer groups such as Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. Gerald A. Donaldson, Senior Research Director for the group, said the draft GTR “clearly exhibits the inordinate influence of European motor vehicle manufacturers in drafting weak GTRs, which the global vehicle manufacturing industry in turn leverages to reduce the stringency of U.S. motor vehicle safety standards.”

But Michael X. Cammisa, Director of Safety, Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, defended GTRs, saying, “An internationally harmonized standard will allow manufacturers to focus their engineering resources on a single regulatory design target for vehicle models that might be offered for sale in different markets throughout the world.”

The GTR consists of two sets of performance criteria, one applying to the front bumper and the other to the hood top and fenders. The standard is broadly based on EU Directive 2003/102/EC originally issued in 2003 and modified in 2007. Its implementation has been delayed as the EU attempts to synchronize the directive with the emerging GTR standard. There have been some differences of opinion between the Europeans and Americans as the GTR has developed, mostly over which type of vehicles the GTR should apply to. NHTSA has pressed for wide application, to passenger cars, sport utility vehicles, light trucks, and light commercial vehicles. Japan presented a modified proposal that would extend the scope to heavier vehicles but with the consideration that vehicle shape be the deciding factor for these vehicles. That issue remains to be resolved.

Once the GTR is adopted, NHTSA will have to initiate a rulemaking, get comments, and then decide how much of the GTR—or how little—it will translate into a federal motor vehicle safety standard.

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