DETROIT (Reuters) - As the auto industry battles to win public confidence after several massive recalls, a group of 18 major carmakers announced on Friday that they have agreed to a voluntary program with the U.S. government to improve auto safety.
The program will focus on better vehicle cyber security, early warning data to spot trends and use the aviation industry as a potential model for cooperation in the aftermath of a major government crackdown on car safety failures.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx met heads of companies like Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCAU.N) and General Motors (GM.N), which have faced recalls, civil penalties and Congressional hearings over vehicle fires and defective ignition switches.
The U.S. government stressed that it is less interested in enforcing recalls and levying fines after problems arise, than preventing safety lapses in the first place.
"We have finalized a historic agreement on a set of broad-ranging actions to help make our roads safer and help avoid the sort of safety crisis that generates the wrong kind of record-setting and headlines," Foxx said.
The program is not legally binding and critics have questioned why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) held weeks of secret talks to reach an agreement instead of addressing safety problems through legal channels that would include public input.
Democratic Senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said the deal continued a culture of informality between automakers and regulators that has led to the deaths of hundreds of Americans through safety lapses.
"From seatbelts to catalytic converters to airbags to fuel economy standards, automakers have proven time and time again that they do nothing voluntarily," the senators said in a statement.
But Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, said the agreement "is a positive step forward."
Former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook called the deal "toothless" and said the "safety of the American public will not be best protected with a kumbaya between the federal agency charged with issuing regulation and the industry seeking to avoid regulation."
The deal includes a joint government-industry working group to study whether the model of an existing aviation industry voluntary working group could make sense for automakers.
"Automakers and NHTSA are committing to work together to develop a collaborative, data–driven, science–based process, consistent with the law," said the agreement reached by automakers and the NHTSA.
"I see it as a real opportunity and a foundation that we can build on," Barra told reporters.
Automakers recalled a record-setting 64 million vehicles in the United States in 2014 and come under harsh criticism for failing to recall vehicles fast enough. NHTSA has also been criticized for not being aggressive enough.
NHTSA has imposed record fines on major automakers and Japanese auto parts maker Takata Corp 7312.T for failing to handle safety issues properly.
Foxx said Thursday's accord could mark a turning point.
"Perhaps years from now we will look back at this moment as a moment when, at a time when there may have been some skepticism about the safety of the automotive industry in general, the industry stepped up and made a hard pivot with us towards a more proactive culture,” he said.
Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Frances Kerry, Andrew Hay and Bernard Orr