Here's What The Infrastructure Bill Will Mean For New Car Design And Safety

Some of it's strongly worded, some vague. But the bulk of these considerations for automotive safety would move our roads in the right direction.

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A 2006 Buick Rainier is subjected to a rollover crash test at a General Motors facility in 2006.
A 2006 Buick Rainier is subjected to a rollover crash test at a General Motors facility in 2006.
Photo: Bill Pugliano (Getty Images)

Most of the attention around the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has centered on funding the bill provides for roads and bridges, public transportation and broadband internet access. But it contains much more, like that bit about adaptive beam headlamps being permitted on American roads within two years. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too, with respect to considerations made for automotive safety and design.

Title IV, Subtitle B in the document — labeled Vehicle Safety — goes well beyond lighting to include stipulations about recall notices and procedures, back seat safety, automatic engine shutoff, crash avoidance tech and the convergence of international automotive standards, among other things.

The wording in some sections is vaguer than others, but it’s all worth exploring nonetheless. Take Section 24211 for example — Global Harmonization. With a title like that it sounds like a cult affirmation. In actuality, it’s something far less insidious:

The Secretary shall cooperate, to the maximum extent practicable, with foreign governments, nongovernmental stakeholder groups, the motor vehicle industry, and consumer groups with respect to global harmonization of vehicle regulations as a means for improving motor vehicle safety.


Of course, the idea of governments cooperating to move toward similar safety standards is comforting. Best case scenario, perhaps it’d make it easier for manufacturers to sell similar models across borders. Maybe we’d get more hot hatches over here; I certainly wouldn’t protest that. But there’s nothing in that block of text that irons out specific measures or ultimatums. It’s just an ideal — the sort regulators profess all the time and never practice in spirit — so it’s difficult to place too much confidence in it.

Section 24208, titled Crash Avoidance Technology, is considerably more direct:

(a) In General.—The Secretary of Transportation shall promulgate a rule —
(1) to establish minimum performance standards with respect to crash avoidance technology; and
(2) to require that all passenger motor vehicles manufactured for sale in the United States on or after the compliance date described in subsection (b) shall be equipped with —
(A) a forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking system that —
(i) alerts the driver if —
(I) the distance to a vehicle ahead or an object in the path of travel ahead is closing too quickly; and
(II) a collision is imminent; and
(ii) automatically applies the brakes if the driver fails to do so; and
(B) a lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist system that —
(i) warns the driver to maintain the lane of travel; and
(ii) corrects the course of travel if the driver fails to do so.


You read that right: All new cars will eventually have to include forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and lane keep assist. The bill leaves the “compliance date” to be decided by the transportation secretary, but sooner or later, these crash avoidance safety features will become standard equipment on all vehicles.

That leads into Section 24209, Reduction of Driver Distraction. This one encapsulates everything from distracted driving in its purest, most obvious terms to “automation complacency” and “foreseeable misuse of advanced driver-assist systems.” The text compels research into these issues to be conducted within the next three years, and a report to be released within 180 days thereafter.


Research is meaningless without action, though — so the most encouraging aspect of this area of the bill is that it’s strongly worded in its requirement that regulators not merely propose but enact new standards based on their findings. And if they don’t, they have to provide specific reasons why not. (Bolded by yours truly.)

(1) In general. — If, based on the research completed under subsection (a), the Secretary determines that —
(A) 1 or more rulemakings are necessary to ensure safety, in accordance with the section 30111 of title 49, United States Code, the Secretary shall initiate the rulemakings by not later than 2 years after the date of submission of the report under subsection (b); and
(B) an additional rulemaking is not necessary, or an additional rulemaking cannot meet the applicable requirements and considerations described in subsections (a) and (b) of section 30111 of title 49, United States Code, the Secretary shall submit to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate and the Committee on Energy and Commerce of the House of Representatives a report describing the reasons for not prescribing additional Federal motor vehicle safety standards regarding the research conducted under subsection (a).


Moving on, there are also stipulations made for the National Highway Transit Safety Administration to more regularly update and amend its New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). This section is quite long and unwieldy, but the gist is that some areas the NHTSA doesn’t currently test — like crash and pedestrian avoidance tech — will soon need to be factored into its evaluations. It’ll need to invent a criteria and language to communicate its findings to consumers. These changes will theoretically bear out in short- and long-term roadmaps for the evolution of the NCAP, so they won’t all be instituted within two years.

Honestly, I’m skeptical of this section because it compels the NHTSA to execute new procedures and regularly update them, something it’s historically never been eager to do. This is the administration that’s balked in enforcing proven life-saving child seat safety standards for decades and continues to use outdated crash test dummies that don’t reflect the physical attributes of the populace, nor account for women in drivers’ seats. Then again, the entirety of Section 24221 is dedicated to understanding and addressing the NHTSA’s lack of effort around dummy design, so maybe this bill could help end the inaction.


The list of changes goes on. There’s a section devoted to anti-drunk driving tech, which we’ve covered before. New cars will be required to automatically shut off their engines after idling for a certain period of time in an effort to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. There will be a probe to ascertain the number of vehicles used for ridesharing with open recalls. Updated back seat, hood and bumper standards are targeted here, too. And I know we discussed headlights yesterday, but one thing I’d missed was the language pertaining to height and angles, which will hopefully mean those of us who choose not to drive earth movers will be less frequently blinded by every truck and SUV in our side mirrors.

Will all this acknowledgement and commitment to research actually result in safer, better cars? Of course, it’s easy to be cynical about these things when they’re so entrenched in politics and bureaucracy. For now though, I’m cautiously optimistic on the basis that lawmakers have at least recognized and called attention to some of these concerns which have been swirling about for a long, long time.