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The US government just announced a 'historic' safety pact with automakers

A new initiative to speed up autonomous driving research isn't the federal government's only big car announcement this week — the US Department of Transportation just took to the stage with a who's-who of global auto industry execs to announce a new safety accord that it hopes will "help avoid the sort of safety crisis that generates the wrong kind of record-setting and headlines," according to a DOT blog post. In total, 18 car companies are represented as a part of the announcement. "The commitments we make today will help catch safety defects before they explode into massive recalls," the post continues.

The actual action items in today's pact are relatively vague, though. According to the action's statement of principles, much of the deal has to do with simply taking a look at existing mechanisms for identifying safety issues with cars on the road and deciding whether a recall is necessary — but there's little concrete language identifying what this means in the real world. (It's entirely possible that closed-door conversations with automakers have been more meaningful, though.)

A new emphasis on automotive cybersecurity, too

Today's announcement also incorporates a renewed emphasis on cybersecurity, which is becoming a hot topic for the industry as more and more new cars rolling off assembly lines are "connected" in one way or another — particularly considering that real-world exploits have already been demonstrated. The auto business already has a consortium known as the Information Sharing and Analysis Center (Auto ISAC), but now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and DOT say they want to "support and evolve" Auto ISAC, in part by adding additional members like suppliers. Automakers outsource many of their components — particularly connected car components — to outside suppliers, so the move would seem to make sense.

A rash of major recalls in recent years likely contributed to today's announcement, none greater than GM's enormous ignition switch recall debacle that cost it hundreds of millions of dollars and contributed to the deaths of dozens. In that case, organizational failures and waves of poor decisions by managers and executives caused affected cars to not be recalled in a timely fashion; perhaps with a better back-and-forth dialogue with NHTSA, the theory goes, GM would've taken action more quickly.