Innovations in the auto industry are picking up speed. Can NHTSA’s whistleblower program keep up?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, known as NHTSA, issued a report in June 2022 publicizing 392 crashes involving “partially automated driver-assist systems,” in the 11 months since it began requiring automakers to report these incidents.1 Partially automated driver-assist systems are innovations that control the car’s steering, speeding up, and slowing down without the driver. Almost 70% of these reported crashes involved Tesla vehicles. Meanwhile, Tesla reported $3.3 billion in profits in the first three months of 2022.

As sales of Tesla vehicles and other cars with automated driver-assist systems increase, the number of these cars on the road will only rise. The potential for crashes involving driver-assist systems will rise accordingly – and, of course, this is not the only safety issue to come along with new vehicle innovations. For instance, on April 1, 2022 NHTSA announced an investigation into the safety of LG Energy Solutions batteries used in a number of manufacturers’ electric vehicles, including models from Mercedes Benz, Hyundai, and General Motors.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has publicly dared his employees to blow the whistle on Tesla, offering a limited edition “Cyberwhistle” for sale, with a design based on the Cybertruck. Musk’s throwing down of the whistleblower gauntlet raises the question: would any employee of a company making newfangled vehicles know where to turn to blow the whistle?

If Mr. Musk’s employees really do have something to report, the NHTSA’s whistleblower program is designated as the place for motor vehicle industry whistleblowers to alert the government of dangerous malfeasance. However, NHTSA has not published regulations on its rules and rewards for whistleblowers in the seven years since the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act passed in 2015. Congress even gave NHTSA a deadline of June 2017 to create these regulations, a date now far off in the rearview mirror. For context, between 2015 and 2021, government agencies have published 23,538 final rules, according to data collected by George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center (“Rules Published in the Federal Register by Presidential Year”).

The NHTSA whistleblower program is authorized by Congress to offer awards of 10 to 30% of collected sanctions over $1 million. In 2021, NHTSA issued only one whistleblower award. Whistleblower Kim Gwang-ho traveled from Korea to the United States to provide information about dangerous practices by Hyundai and Kia, including untimely recalls and hiding damaging safety information from NHTSA. He received $21.4 million dollars, 30% of the sanctions collected from Hyundai and Kia. Mr. Kim’s report of multiple problems, including a safety issue that could cause engines to stall out unexpectedly, led Hyundai and Kia to recall 1.5 million vehicles in the U.S. and South Korea.

Hyundai and Kia are just two automakers. Business Insider reports that, the world over, there are 14 major car companies that control 62 brands of automakers – and that counts only the largest players in the field. With nearly 276 million registered vehicles traveling on over 4 million miles of public roads in the United States, the numbers dictate that we need more than one motor vehicle safety whistleblower.

Written by By Elizabeth Soltan of Constantine Cannon LLP. Edited by Kate Scanlan of Keller Grover LLP and Tony Munter of Price Benowitz. Fact checked by Julia-Jeane Lighten of Taxpayers Against Fraud.

1. While NHTSA now requires automakers to report this data, it is still self-reported information and may not be complete.