New NHTSA reform bill could provide opportunities for aftermarket

Jan. 1, 2020
The NHTSA reform legislation starting to move through Congress would provide a flood of new information about vehicle safety to that agency.

The NHTSA reform legislation starting to move through Congress would provide a flood of new information about vehicle safety to that agency, and the public, opening the door to a potentially rich, new vein of intelligence for aftermarket vendors, and hence products for aftermarket retailers.

That is not the intent, of course, of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act which took center stage at hearings in the House Energy & Commerce subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection on May 6. The purpose of that draft bill is to strengthen the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) regulatory and legal authorities, and pump up its budget, in the wake of the Toyota sudden acceleration imbroglio.

One witness pushed for a requirement for manufacturers to use open source software in their EDRs, allowing drivers to customize the information they themselves would collect, have access to and presumably report to NHTSA. He made the argument that this would be like allowing consumers to customize their cars. One could imagine, in time, there being whole "EDR software" departments at aftermarket retailers.  

But it was clear from the hearings that this NHTSA reform bill may be as difficult to pass as the health care reform bill was. Republican after Republican cited complaints about objectionable provisions. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), the top Republican on the full committee, indicated he supports some elements in the bill, such as making more vehicle information publicly available on the NHTSA website. But he called other provisions "troublesome" such as the user fee new vehicle manufacturers would have to pay. "This is not the time to potentially pile on the auto industry," he said.

Democrats also voiced concerns. Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), former chairman of the full committee, now Chairman Emeritus, methodically walked NHTSA Administrator David Strickland through each section of the bill, slowly taking it apart bit by bit. Dingell represents Detroit, and still has some sway on the committee and on the Democratic side generally owing to his long service in the House. Dingell, an unabashed supporter of the auto industry, has his differences with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the committee, who undiplomatically dumped Dingell from the top post at the start of this Congress. Waxman was the chief drafter of the NHTSA reform bill. Dingell asked Strickland whether NHTSA had been consulted by Waxman's aides as they drafted the bill. "No," the administrator replied.

Has NHTSA done the necessary prior studies needed to move forward on the rulemakings for the new safety standards required under the bill? "No," again. Among the standards that would be required are ones on pedal placement, transmission configuration, electronic systems performance, keyless ignition systems and brake override.

Would those new standards be enforceable since they do not reference NHTSA's baseline safety law. "No," once more. And so on. fabrication for high horsepower vehicles.

The draft bill will undoubtedly undergo significant changes as it moves through the House and Senate. But some of the sections with what could have a positive impact on the aftermarket seem to have bipartisan support. They could make it to President Obama's desk.