After two tumultuous years of recalls, fines and friction, the government and the auto industry struck a peace treaty of sorts by agreeing to cooperate on safety issues in the future.
A group of 17 automakers and the Department of Transportation agreed Friday to a set of "proactive safety principles" and vowed to work together to quickly spot and resolve problems before they endanger the public.
Officials said most details are still to be worked out. But the pact marks a change in the relationship between the DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the auto industry after revelations that serious defects went undisclosed to the public for years, and as automakers rapidly develop technologies that could one day lead to driverless cars.
"Don't underestimate what happened today," said Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, whose company was fined millions by NHTSA last year for not reporting safety defects fast enough and failing to follow through on recalls. "It was the approach that the secretary and the administration took. I think you'll see a huge change."
The pact was announced Friday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx with Marchionne, GM CEO Mary Barra and several other top industry officials in attendance.
Foxx said it came out of meetings he requested with industry executives, and he conceded that the relationship has to change.
"I don't need to recount the crisis after crisis we've been dealing with," he said. "We know the stories and we all know they haven't been good for the industry, for DOT and most importantly for public safety."
Automakers and regulators will study whether the aviation industry's voluntary safety reporting can be applied to autos, and they agreed to look at using big data to spot and report safety problems faster. They'll also work together to increase the percentage of recall repairs that get done, and they'll study and share cybersecurity information.
In recent years, the U.S. public has learned of serious safety issues with cars on the road, such as defective ignition switches and faulty air bags, that went unreported for long periods and caused injuries and deaths. NHTSA imposed record fines last year on some automakers for failure to disclose defects, but the agency also was faulted for an inability to identify safety problems and take action.
Foxx hopes to borrow from the Federal Aviation Administration's safety management agreement with airlines, which requires them to share safety data. "It has dramatically reduced aviation accidents," he said. "It relies on information sharing by industry and the trust established by the FAA and its stakeholders."
It's hard to determine how much the FAA philosophy is responsible for the historically low level of aviation deaths. Many experts believe greater disclosure has improved safety, but also say credit goes to improvements in planes. Lessons learned from air crash investigations have been incorporated into new generations of airliners. Planes today are also highly automated, eliminating a lot of human errors.
The auto industry pact, combined with an agreement on autonomous cars announced Thursday, is aimed at bringing voluntary agreements instead of regulations, which take years to get through the government bureaucracy and move too slowly to keep up with technology.
Safety advocates have criticized such industry-government cooperation because regulators can become too reliant on automakers for information and data.
But Foxx said NHTSA will keep its enforcement powers for use when needed, and Hyundai North America CEO Dave Zuchowski said the cooperation is needed so the government can keep up with changes.
"The old way of doing business doesn't work," he said. "You have to have separation of church and state, but you need to be able to move quicker."
Explore further: Gov't to announce new safety relationship with automakers