Ann Carlson, the acting administrator for the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), is set to leave her role on December 26, 2023, and exit the agency entirely at the end of January.
The news was announced in a memo circulated among the agency staff by Patrick Lally, who heads NHTSA’s governmental affairs office.
A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation (DOT) praised Carlson’s tenure noting that under her leadership, NHTSA strengthened child seat standards, supervised major recalls and held registered importers accountable for their actions. Despite escalating roadway fatalities in past years, six consecutive quarters brought descending fatalities during her overseeing period.
However, Carlson’s administration was not without controversy. It came under fire from Republicans for her past climate activism and support for regulations focusing on gas-powered vehicles. Her continued leadership of the NHTSA after an unsuccessful Senate confirmation for its occupant led to growing opposition from the Republican side of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Originally hired in January 2021 by the Biden-Harris transition team, Carlson transitioned from her role as an environmental law professor at UCLA to serve as the NHTSA’s chief counsel and took on the role of acting administrator in September 2022.
However, her appointment as the head of NHTSA was rejected by the Senate in May 2023, due to concerns regarding her previous work advising plaintiffs on climate litigation and comments made about her role within the Biden administration.
Despite her nomination withdrawal, Carlson continued as acting administrator and formulated new fuel economy regulations. These rules aimed to encourage more electric vehicle (EV) purchases, fitting with the Biden administration’s broader climate goals.
Carlson’s continuation in an acting role triggered objections from Republicans and energy advocates. Texas Senator Ted Cruz asserted that her role violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which prohibits an individual who has been nominated for a vacant post from fulfilling that role’s tasks in an acting capacity.
Cruz, alongside Senator Cynthia Lummis, introduced a resolution in September to effectively defund Carlson’s position. Cruz argued Carlson’s failure to serve as the first assistant to the previous NHTSA chief for over 90 days before his resignation further made her unfit for the role.
As Carlson prepares to exit, it has stirred a mixed reaction, reflecting not only the partisan divide but also underscoring the ongoing tensions concerning climate policy and vehicle regulations in the US.
As the Biden administration continues its aggressive push towards EVs and reduced carbon emissions, it will be interesting to see the eventual successor for Carlson’s position and the strategic direction they will follow.
In conclusion, Ann Carlson’s departure marks a significant chapter in the Biden administration’s efforts to implement a greener agenda. Despite the adversity and challenges faced during her tenure, Carlson’s impact on the NHTSA, particularly her push for stringent emissions standards and promoting electric vehicle use, remain significant.
Her successor’s nomination will undoubtedly be closely watched, with stakeholders awaiting if it will steer the department’s policies in a new direction or continue on the current course.