NHTSA Bows Again to Car Manufacturers
(Akron/Tire Review) Initial analysis of NHTSA’s final regulations mandating tyre pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) on all new passenger vehicles shows the new regulations are badly flawed, raising questions about how well they will protect drivers.
And they illustrate clearly just how much sway the car manufacturer lobby has with the safety agency, and how little consideration the logical and correct argument raised by the tyre industry and the automotive aftermarket really received.
Despite NHTSA’s claims to the contrary, there is considerable differences between the final rules – FMVSS 138, as they are formally known – and its heavily questioned Notice of Proposed Rule Making it issued last autumn.
The most notable difference between the proposed and the final regulations is that indirect TPMS are once again permitted. NHTSA specifically eliminated indirect TPMS from the proposed regulations it offered last September, saying that it felt that available technology would not allow indirect systems to reliably meet its four tyres/25 per cent under-inflation mandate.
Indirect TPMS estimate a tyre’s air pressure by counting tyre revolutions, comparing the live result with the revolutions per mile of the other tyres. (Some newer indirect systems compare a tyre’s revolutions per mile to a baseline figure established by the number of times a tyre would revolve at its correct pressure setting.)
Experts and others have said that compared to direct TPMS – where a sensor inside a tyre/wheel assembly reports live air pressure with an accuracy of 1-2 psi – indirect systems can be quite inaccurate. Experts said, for example, that because indirect systems compare the RPMs of each tyre to determine if one or more are underinflated, they would fail to register if all four tyres were nearly equally underinflated.
In the document, NHTSA rarely referred to “indirect” TPMS, preferring to use the phrase “technology-neutral” to define permissible TPMS options. “The standard is intended to be technology-neutral, so as to permit compliance with any available TPMS technology that meets the standard’s performance requirements,” said the final regulations issued by NHTSA yesterday.
Not surprisingly, NHTSA estimated that cost-conscious car manufacturers would trend toward less expensive options. “Assuming that manufacturers will seek to minimize compliance costs, the agency expects that manufacturers would install hybrid TPMSs on the 67 per cent of vehicles that are currently equipped with an ABS and direct TPMSs on the 33 per cent of vehicles that are not so equipped.”
In the same breath, NHTSA said, “The highest costs for compliance would result if a manufacturer installed direct TPMSs with an interactive readout of individual tyre pressures that included sensors on all vehicle wheels. In the near term, the agency believes that a direct system with a generic warning lamp (is the most likely option to be selected by automobile manufacturers.”
Here are the main highlights of the final TPMS regulations:
• TPMS must detect and warn drivers – via a illuminated dashboard telltale – when the inflation pressure of one or more of the vehicles tyres falls 25 per cent or more below the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended cold inflation pressure. NHTSA rejected tyre industry efforts to reduce the threshold to a much safer 20 per cent level, claiming that the lower level might become “a nuisance” to drivers. The telltale must remain illuminated until the air pressure is corrected. NHTSA did not address the obvious fact that motorists may opt to over-inflate their tyres to forestall dashboard warnings.
• Certain light truck tyres – specifically Load Range D and E – will have a minimum TPMS activation pressure of 35 psi.
• The dashboard telltale must also alert the driver when the system malfunctions, either through damage or other mechanical problems, or because the tyres and/or wheels installed cause a disruption in the system. The malfunction must be discovered and the driver alerted within 20 minutes, however. In short, this means that certain replacement tyres and/or aftermarket wheels may not allow a car’s TPMS to function properly. Again, the telltale must remain illuminated until the problem is corrected.
• TPMSs will have a “warm-up” period before they are required to function. Systems do not need to function fully until a vehicle has been driven between 30 and 60 mph (50 and 100 kpm) continuously for 20 minutes. That means that those drivers with short commutes or those who make only short trips with their vehicles will remain unprotected by their TPMS. The regulations NHTSA proposed last fall had a 10-minute warm-up period, but a number of automakers complained that the period was too short – some even suggested a 60-minute warm-up.
• NHTSA refused to address the issue of how altitude and temperature – either ambient or that generated by operation – might impact inflation pressures and subsequent TPMS operation.
• TPMSs are not required to work with spare tyres – stowed or installed – or with replacement tyres. NHTSA acknowledged that not all potential replacement tyres will allow an OE TPMS to function correctly, but indicated that it felt most tyres would.
• To answer one key question posed by the performance aftermarket, though, NHTSA said that those who install tyres and/or wheels that cause a TPMS to not function would not be found in violation of 49 U.S.C. 30122(b), which states that “A manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business may not knowingly make inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter unless the manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or repair business reasonably believes the vehicle or equipment will not be used (except for testing or a similar purpose during maintenance or repair) when the device or element is inoperative.” In other words, dealers and performance shops will not face federal jail time for installing aftermarket tyres and wheels provided they don’t intentionally disable a vehicle’s TPMS.
• NHTSA offered no guidance on TPMS standardisation, which means tyre dealers and others who sell or service tyres will face innumerable TPMS. Additionally, despite pleas from the tyre industry and other aftermarket groups, NHTSA declined to order automakers to share all TPMS service information and reset tools with the aftermarket, feeling that such important information – including reset codes and procedures – and necessary tools will be readily available. In other words, NHTSA skirted the entyre Right to Repair Act issue, and will leave independent dealers and shops to fend for themselves against car dealers.
• NHTSA also rejected an aftermarket request that vehicle makers comply with Society of Automotive Engineers and European Union standards concerning the design of TPMS mounting pockets on wheels. This, they argued, would allow easy transfer of TPMS from OE to aftermarket wheels. Interestingly, NHTSA never acknowledged the existence of valve-stem direct TPMS, referring only to systems that were physically attached to wheels.
• The agency also rejected a request that automakers be compelled standardize communication protocols, and that they “should be prohibited from requiring special tools for TPMS reprogramming or utilizing encrypted systems that would prevent installation of aftermarket products.”
• It also rejected a request that vehicles and/or wheels be clearly marked if the vehicle had a TPMS. NHTSA reasoned that eventually all vehicles would have them, so there was no reason to make it easier – and, potentially, less costly – for tyre dealers and other who handle tyres.
• The phase-in period has been changed from that previously suggested, primarily because so much time has passed since automakers first learned that they would have to install TPMS at OE. The final regs specify that TPMSs must be installed on 20 per cent of all new passenger vehicles (under 10,000 pounds GVW), except dual-wheeled trucks which are exempted) produced before Aug. 31, 2006, be installed on 70 per cent of new vehicles by Aug. 31, 2007, and on 100 per cent of all vehicles thereafter. The rule allows automakers to use carry-forward and carry-backward credits to meet their obligation, recognising that some automakers have already been installing TPMS.
• Finally, NHTSA once again rejected the tyre industry’s case for “reserve load” – that a TPMS warn when before any of the vehicle’s tyres have insufficient pressure to carry the actual load on the vehicle. NHTSA claimed that the reserve load issue was best addressed in entirely separate regulations – FMVSS 110, Tyre Selection and Rims. In declining to address an important inflation/load question in its TPMS regulations, NHTSA stated: “We believe that the issue of reserve load is a tyre issue most properly considered under FMVSS No. 110…we have decided to address this issue in our response to the RMA’s petition for rulemaking on tyre reserve load. We are publishing a separate notice that responds to that petition.”
There are a number of other issues addressed in NHTSA’s final TPMS regulations. Additionally, NHTSA shares both the complaints and issues raised by the tyre industry, automakers and others to points in the regulations, as well as the often pencil-thin reasoning behind its final determinations.
The bad news is that we have to live with FMVSS 138 as released, and all of its ramifications – despite how seriously and dangerously flawed these new regulations are.
The really bad news is that in reading through NHTSA’s commentary on objections and the reasoning behind its ultimate decision, it is eminently clear just how much power the automaker lobby has on Washington and on what should ideally be non-political decisions.
When Congress passed the TREAD Act in October 2000, it was quite clear in stating that the law’s provisions were intended to increase driver and passenger safety, a position upheld by the federal appeals court that threw out NHTSA’s second pass at TPMS regs.
Still, NHTSA comes back with a set of regulations that are far short of meeting Congress’ intent, and well-laced with positions that clearly ease the burden on automakers and create tremendous confusion and concern within the automotive aftermarket and the whole of the tyre industry.