Deputy administrator David Friedman, who oversaw the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) through the majority of its most challenging year ever, left the agency on Friday to take a position at the U.S. Energy Department. Former NHTSA head David Strickland left the agency in January 2014 to join Venable LLP, a law firm that specializes in lobbying for the auto industry. Friedman served as interim administrator through most of that year, the most tumultuous in the Department’s 45 year history. Nearly 64 million vehicles were recalled during Friedman’s short stint at the helm, the most in any year, and the most any NHTSA chief has encountered during his tenure regardless of length. In an e-mailed statement, Friedman wrote, “It has been a true honor and privilege to work with the people of NHTSA to make a real difference in safety for all who share America’s roads.” The Detroit News broke the story Thursday night, on the eve of Friedman’s last day with the department.
Current NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind, who assumed the position in December 2014, praised Friedman for his efforts. Rosekind responded to the decision to leave, “He has been an invaluable resource, helping me learn about the agency and our work, and all of us at NHTSA owe him thanks for his service during one of the agency’s toughest times.” During his brief stint, Friedman attempted to navigate the General Motors ignition switch crisis and its 2.6 million recalled vehicles, a wave of clashes with Fiat-Chrysler, and the initial Takata airbag recall, among other snowballing crises. The $126 million in civil penalties collected by the agency in 2014 was more than the NHTSA collected in the preceding four decades. Friedman, a Ph.D. candidate at U.C. Davis and a former transportation analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, will become a senior official for the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Besides navigating through the biggest storm in auto history, Friedman worked diligently with some degree of success at encouraging automakers to improve fuel standards.
Despite what many feel to be having done an admirable job given the circumstances, Friedman’s departure is likely a welcome change for those wishing to see Rosekind take the department in a new, more proactive direction. The current NHTSA chief is under fire following a scathing report from the Transportation Department’s Office of the Inspector General’s (OIG) report, and Rosekind has vowed to become more aggressive in the model of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) management of the airline industry. Although much of the OIG report blamed much of the department’s many longstanding problems on the lack of leadership of Friedman’s predecessor, he was hammered for his lack of aggressiveness in pursuing the Takata recall, as well as for implementing Strickland’s makeshift solution to Fiat-Chrysler’s exploding gas tank crisis. The solution involved placing a trailer hitch on the bumper of several Jeep model vehicles to create more distance between the gas tank and a potential rear-end impact. The solution has been heavily criticized for its lukewarm effectiveness and its lack of addressing the fuel system itself.
Friedman also took heat on Capitol Hill last year over the Takata crisis, with Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), telling Friedman in a hearing, “You want to obfuscate responsibility rather than take responsibility. We need some admission that this was not done right.” Friedman acknowledged in the hearing, “There are clearly things looking back as an agency where we need to improve. Can we do more? Do we need to invest more? Do we need to improve our processes? Absolutely.” Despite the criticisms and the fact that as a scientist Friedman was likely in over his head, his efforts at the helm initiated the process of bringing the recall epidemic under some degree of control. Takata eventually agreed to follow an NHTSA Consent Order in May, and last month, Rosekind announced in a public hearing that the department may sanction Fiat-Chrysler with over $700 million in total civil penalties, the maximum $35 million for each of its recall violations. The Department of Justice has also found GM liable for lying to investigators during the ignition switch recall. Regardless of Friedman’s motives for making the change, the move works to reinforce Rosekind’s commitment to the OIG that he is moving the department forward, taking the OIG’s recommendations seriously as he has vowed to implement all the changes referenced in the report by the June 2016 deadline.
Automotive News – Nora Naughton
The Detroit News – David Shepardson