The Biden administration on Wednesday proposed a requirement that all new cars and SUVs come equipped with automatic emergency braking systems that could avoid crashes at high speeds and protect pedestrians, even in the dark.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is proposing the rule, estimates the technology could save more than 300 lives a year and help to avoid 24,000 injuries.

“We know this work is going to save lives, to make sure that there won’t be that empty chair at the dinner table,” Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg said at an event in Washington while announcing the plan.

The proposal represents one of the most significant efforts to update car safety rules in years and would be a clear example of how technology could help human drivers. It comes as crash deaths have soared during the pandemic, with almost 43,000 people killed on U.S. roads last year, following a decade in which drivers have killed pedestrians at increasingly higher rates.

Still, any benefits are probably years away. The rule is subject to public comment and review by the government. NHTSA is then proposing to give automakers three years to begin installing the technology and four years to fully meet the standards.

Safety advocacy groups said they supported the measure but wished the action could have come years earlier.


“We’re always pushing for more aggressive timelines because, with every passing day that it doesn’t happen, that means more lives are imperiled unnecessarily,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “We’ve been pushing for this rule for years, literally.”

Automatic emergency braking, often referred to as AEB, relies on cameras, radar, or other sensors to detect obstacles like slow-moving vehicles or pedestrians in front of a car. It can then take action independently to try to stop the car before a crash.

During the Obama administration, the government brokered a voluntary and less-stringent deal with automakers to equip almost all new cars and SUVs with the technology. The deadline in that agreement arrived for cars produced after Sept. 1, 2022, and nearly all major automakers hit the goal early.

General Motors lagged, equipping 73% of its vehicles last year with automatic braking. But the company announced Tuesday that its fleet would meet the terms of the deal this year.

John Capp, GM’s director of vehicle safety technology, strategy, and regulations, said in a statement that automatic braking and other advanced systems on the company’s vehicles are “significant building blocks with proven benefits for reducing common crashes.”

The standard required under the earlier agreement was that automatic brakes be able to slow a vehicle by at least 10 mph before the moment of an impact in tests at either 12 or 25 mph, or by 5 mph in both tests. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a group of car manufacturers, said the industry has made strides in deploying technology that had already shown its worth.


But NHTSA said in the proposed rule Wednesday that speeds at which current systems are required to operate are below the speeds at which the most serious crashes occur.

The proposal the Biden administration unveiled calls for considerably tougher standards. The braking systems would be required to avoid collisions at up to 62 mph if the driver starts to brake and 50 mph if the driver is not manually braking. It would also require braking systems that can stop for pedestrians, a feature some automakers already offer. NHTSA said vehicles could generally meet the standards through software updates, estimating the cost per vehicle at $82.

“We know we’re throwing a challenge out here, but we know that a lot of this technology is already pretty well developed and this is a time to take things to the next level to make this technology more universally deployed and more stringent,” Trottenberg said.

The National Transportation Safety Board has said federal standards on automatic braking are a top priority. NTSB chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said while the proposal’s timeline is long and there appeared to be gaps when accounting for cyclists and motorbikes, the rule still would go a long way toward addressing her agency’s recommendations.

“It is a huge forward movement toward safety,” Homendy said.

The infrastructure law required NHTSA to set standards for the braking systems as part of a broader effort to increase road safety. It included other technology requirements, including systems that can prevent people from driving drunk, and provided billions for investments in safer street designs.

Mike McGinn, a former Seattle mayor and executive director of America Walks, a pedestrian advocacy group, said Wednesday the nation needed to take an “all-of-the-above” approach to pedestrian safety that includes new technology and overhauls of street designs.

“Designing streets so people naturally drive slower is preferable” to trying to stop a vehicle traveling at 50 mph in the face of a pedestrian, McGinn said.

Trottenberg was joined at the announcement by Ann Carlson, NHTSA’s chief counsel. Carlson had been nominated to lead the agency, but the White House said Tuesday it was withdrawing her as the administration’s pick. Carlson had been facing scrutiny from Senate Republicans over her record as an environmental lawyer. She told reporters she decided to withdraw so she could focus on her current role at the agency.

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