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December 13, 2019 2:45 PM, EST

Autonomous, New Technology Merit NTSB’s Attention, Nominee Tells Senate Panel

Nominee Thomas ChapmanNominee Thomas Chapman addresses the Senate Commerce Committee. (commerce.senate.gov)

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The National Transportation Safety Board needs to ensure technical skills are available and staff expertise is maintained to address concerns related to autonomous vehicles and new technology, President Donald Trump’s nominee for a seat with the independent agency told a Senate panel Dec. 11.

“Advances in automation and the development of autonomous vehicles hold great promise for enhancing transportation safety,” said Thomas Chapman, a nominee to serve on the board through Dec. 31, 2023. He explained his qualifications for the post during a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee.

He added, “However, these advances present new questions and challenges, some of which will be difficult to anticipate.”

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Responding to a questionnaire from the committee that provided him an opportunity to expand on his qualifications for a spot on the board, Chapman indicated that his nearly four decades of “experience in the aviation industry have prepared me well for such a task.”

“Consequently, an awareness and sensitivity to a pervasive culture of safety is embedded in my professional approach, consistent with the critical safety mission of the NTSB,” he added. The completed questionnaire is archived on the committee’s website. The committee has yet to schedule a vote on the nomination.

Chapman is minority counsel to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Aviation and Space, according to background on the White House’s website. His career includes stints at US Airways and Southwest Airlines.

Last month the committee approved Michael Graham’s nomination for a spot on the board. His nomination advanced to the Senate floor. However, Republican leaders have not indicated when they intend to consider the nomination.

Graham, an aviation training officer, was nominated earlier this year for a post on the independent safety board. Most recently, he was a director for Textron Aviation Inc., overseeing the company’s safety management system, global security and air safety investigations, according to background on the White House’s website. He also has served as chairman of the Air Charter Safety Foundation, as well as a member of the General Aviation Information Analysis Team.

An area of concern for the transportation sector is unmanned vehicles, Graham explained. In written remarks to the Commerce committee, he elaborated on his perspective: “Integration of these vehicles with manned vehicles will be an issue, but so will the analysis of technical shortfalls in the unmanned vehicles. This has the potential for causing accidents.”

NTSB is tasked with investigating high-profile crashes, and it publishes a “Most Wanted List” of priorities. Those safety priorities have included reducing fatigue-related accidents. Earlier this year, the Senate confirmed Robert Sumwalt and Jennifer Homendy to continue to serve on the board. Sumwalt began his tenure on the board in 2006 and had been confirmed as chairman in 2017. A recent confirmation extended his chairmanship for three years. Meanwhile, Homendy began her tenure on the board last year and her term expires Dec. 31, 2024.

After the NTSB confirmations, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), committee chairman, said, “Confirming these nominees supports the administration’s initiatives to address critical transportation safety issues and advance technological and scientific discovery.”

Besides the nominees for seats on NTSB, other transportation nominees approved in committee are awaiting a vote on the Senate floor. They include Michelle Schultz for a seat on the Surface Transportation Board; Diana Furchtgott-Roth to be an assistant secretary of transportation; and Thelma Drake, to be Federal Transit administrator.

A former congresswoman, Drake oversaw transportation programs while working for the Virginia state government. The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Virginia Railway Express are among the agencies in her background portfolio. Her career also includes posts on federal and state transportation committees.

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