NHTSA May Require Limited-Production Automakers to Comply with Air Bag Safety Standards

It may seem counter-intuitive that some limited-production automakers including Ferrari SpA, Lamborghini SpA and Tesla Motors Incorporated could qualify for a financial-hardship exemption of any kind, but that is what has allowed these and some other automakers to equip their vehicles with air bags that fail to meet current federal safety standards for the past five years.

In a Federal Register notice filed yesterday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicated that it may revoke the exemptions and require the automakers to equip their vehicles with advanced air bags which adjust deployment force based on the height and weight of the vehicle’s occupants.

The NHTSA began requiring advanced air bags for all light vehicles sold in the U.S. beginning with model-year 2004 vehicles but offered exemptions to automakers that produce fewer than 10,000 units annually. NHTSA spokeswoman Karen Aldana said approximately 10 automakers have received exemptions.

Tesla is seeking to extend its financial-hardship waiver for the Roadster all-electric vehicle.  In a response to Tesla’s appeal for an extension, the NHTSA said it “tentatively concludes that the expense of advanced air bag technology is not now sufficient, in and of itself, to justify the grant of a petition for a hardship exemption from the advanced air bag requirements.”

Tesla has sold only 1,700 Roadsters worldwide and plans to cease production by mid-2012 when it launches the Model S sedan. Tesla spokeswoman Khobi Brooklyn said the new Model S will be equipped with advanced air bags.

Exemption for Ferrari SpA and Lamborghini SpA expired in August 2009 and February 2011 respectively.

Lamborghini spokesman Raffaello Porro said, “The potential end to these exemptions will not affect Lamborghini as our current product offerings, the Aventador and Gallardo models, currently meet federal air bag requirements.”

In a 2009 NHTSA filing, Lamborghini said that it planned to spend $15 million in order to comply with the advanced air bag requirement for all future models.

According to Edmunds.com, Britain’s Group Lotux Plc plans to stop producing its Elise and Exige sports cars in the U.S. in part because of the air bag issue.

Atlanta-based Wheego also received a waiver for its LiFe two-door plug-in electric model.  The company’s vice president of product development Les Seagraves said, “We had been working on this vehicle for about three years and in order to put the advanced air bags in the car, it would have cost us another million and a half dollars and another 18 months of development. We’re a tiny startup company. That would have pretty much put us out of business.”

Since its launch last April, Wheego has sold only 24 units and has orders for an additional 300 vehicles.  The company plans to equip its new four-door model with advanced air bags.

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