DETROIT — The head of the U.S. government office that investigates automobile safety problems has resigned from his post just days after the release of a harsh audit criticizing how the office was managed.
Stephen Ridella stepped down as director of the Office of Defects Investigation at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on June 3, Veronica Morales, a NHTSA spokeswoman, confirmed this week.
Ridella, who started at the agency in 2006 after a long career in the auto industry, wrote in a LinkedIn posting that he has taken a new job as director of safety planning and regulatory reporting at Zoox, an autonomous vehicle company owned by Amazon. He declined further comment when reached Thursday by The Associated Press.
On June 1, the inspector general for the Department of Transportation, which includes NHTSA, released an audit saying the defects investigation office is slow to investigate safety problems, limiting its ability to respond quickly to severe risks to automobile safety. Auditors found that the defects office often missed its own goals for speedier investigations, it doesn’t have clear requirements for documenting probes, and it failed to adequately supervise investigators.
NHTSA said last week that it already has finished most of the improvements recommended by the inspector general.
Ridella was in charge of the defects office as it began trying to force ARC Automotive Inc. of Tennessee recall 67 million air bag inflators that can explode with too much force and hurl shrapnel. NHTSA says the inflators have caused two deaths in the U.S. and Canada and injured seven others. The agency sent a recall request letter to ARC in April after an investigation that was started eight years ago.
The Office of Defects Investigation began investigating ARC’s inflators in 2015, but it took nearly eight years for the agency to seek the recall. In 2021, a 40-year-old mother of 10 was killed in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula after an ARC inflator exploded in a relatively minor crash.
NHTSA made a tentative determination that ARC’s inflators are defective, and it has ordered the company to say whether it expects more inflators to rupture. ARC has until June 14 to respond. The next step in the process would be for NHTSA to hold a public hearing, and then possibly take the company to court to get a recall order.
ARC maintains that no safety defect exists and that NHTSA’s demand is based on a hypothesis rather than technical conclusions.
In his LinkedIn posting, Ridella wrote that he’s thrilled to join Zoox as it develops a robotaxi. “Safety has been the focus of my entire career, and I am excited to continue this journey with my new team at Zoox,” he wrote.
Zoox is under investigation by NHTSA. In March the defects office began looking into the company’s 2022 certification that its vehicle met federal safety standards for motor vehicles. The agency said at the time that it would look into whether Zoox used its own test procedures to determine that certain federal standards weren’t applicable because of the robotaxi’s unique configuration.
Ridella’s departure creates another vacancy in top leadership at the agency, which has been without a Senate-confirmed administrator, its top position, since Steven Cliff left last September to run the California Air Resources Board, which regulates pollution. Last month President Joe Biden withdrew his nomination of Ann Carlson, NHTSA’s chief counsel, to be NHTSA administrator.
Morales, the NHTSA spokeswoman, said Cem Hatipoglu, associate administrator for vehicle safety research, will run the Office of Defects Investigation while the agency searches for Ridella’s replacement.
In the audit of the Office of Defects Investigation, the inspector general found that it may miss critical information for launching investigations because it didn’t follow procedures needed to evaluate risk from potential auto safety defects.
The agency also doesn’t have an integrated computer system for its probes, and doesn’t consistently follow its own procedures for making safety problems a high priority, the audit found.
It also found that the office doesn’t always record key documentation in its investigative files. In 22 of 24 investigations in 2018 and 2019, files were missing documentation, the audit found.
The agency sets timeliness targets for investigations, but the audit found that the targets were missed in 33 of 35 probes sampled over three years.
The defects office sets a goal of finishing preliminary investigations in 120 days. When it upgrades those to an engineering analysis, the goal is to finish in a year. But auditors found that preliminary probes in a 2018 and 2019 sample took an average of 617 days to finish. The engineering analyses were open for another 1,001 days on average, almost three times the goal.
NHTSA’s statement said it finished the first phase of a multiyear information technology update by 2020, improving data storage and analysis. Since then, it’s continually introduced technology updates.
“NHTSA believes it is well positioned to build upon its successful implementation of standardized operating procedures, including rigorous documentation and risk-based escalation processes,” the statement said.
The agency said improvements have positioned it to oversee a growing number of recalls that are addressing safety risks faster than in the past. It said there were a record 896 vehicle and equipment recalls in 2021, and 850 in 2022. “NHTSA is continuing its efforts to further enhance its ability to identify safety issues more quickly while engaging manufacturers earlier in the process to conduct more timely recalls,” the statement said.