Weekly News: July 30, 2001

July 30, 2001

NHTSA WILL SEEK BROADENED RECALL According to various outside sources, the NHTSA will seek a broadened recall of some of the Firestone tires under investigation. Up to seven million additional tires could be affected by the recall request. Bridgestone Firestone will allegedly resist the government's request, and in that case the Transportation Department will need to take action against the company in the federal courts to order the recall—not a desirable image for Firestone's already tarnished public image. The NHTSA has held judgment to analyze a large pool of data on the tires, while Ford and Firestone continue to brawl over the responsibility for Ford's voluntary replacement earlier this year.

NHTSA PROPOSES TIRE PRESSURE MONITORS The NHTSA has proposed a new safety requirement for tire pressure monitoring systems on new vehicles beginning in late 2003. The agency has not yet finalized details of the new standard, but reveals that it will require a driver warning when the pressure of one or more tires has fallen to 20 or 25 percent of the recommended cold inflation pressure. The new standard is likely a direct response to the ongoing Firestone tire recall investigation. Underinflation has been a key issue in the failure of some of the tread-separation tire failures on Ford Explorers. According to  some reports, the NHTSA will probably require one of two possible tire pressure warning systems: one with a sensor for each tire triggering a warning if any one of the tires falls below twenty percent of the recommended pressure; or one that uses the anti-lock brake system’s speed sensors to estimate the pressure difference among the tires.

CAFE HIKE FACES UNCERTAIN FUTURE IN HOUSE A committee of the U.S. House of Representatives has voted against a proposal that would have increased the federal government's controversial Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, although environmentalists say that there is still hope to raise the CAFE with an upcoming debate of the issue in the full House, according to Automotive News. The least drastic proposal would have required cars to average 37.5 mpg and trucks 29 mpg by 2012. Other potential compromises would bring fuel consumption of light trucks more in line with that of passenger cars.

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT? Supplier Gentex Corporation has unveiled a low-cost light-sensing device for automatic-dimming rear-view mirrors. The company boasts that its new Active Light Sensor technology is durable, cheap, and it doesn't need external circuitry. Because of the price point, look for auto-dim rearview mirrors to become standard in more mainstream models in the near future.

CALIFORNIA MTBE BAN A DILEMMA New regulations in California that have banned the gasoline additive MTBE might cause problems for the state, according to a Reuters report. MTBE, currently used in fuel reformulated for the control of smog, is known to be a groundwater toxin, often leaching from underground storage tanks. The new ban will involve the shipping of ethanol (corn alcohol) from the Midwest to California, where it will be blended with gasoline in place of MTBE. Ethanol is already used in special anti-smog reformulations in some Midwest areas, causing price fluctuations for this summer and last summer due to the limited number of refineries that make the blend. Many suspect that shipping ethanol to California will be costly and unpractical, due to the sheer quantities involved, but agricultural lobbies say that reduced reliance on foreign-supplied MTBE is better.

TOO MANY DRIVERS HOLDING CELLPHONES A new National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study reveals that an estimated three percent of passenger-car drivers are using hand-held cellphones. The study used observations of more than 12,000 vehicles at 640 different intersections late last year, and the figure is only for hand-held phones, not for hands-free systems. The NHTSA study found that hand-held cellphone use was highest among drivers of vans and sport-utility vehicles, and that female drivers tended to use cellphones more often while behind the wheel. Using the data, the federal agency estimates that about 500,000 U.S. motorists talk on hand-held cellphones while driving. Most experts agree that hand-held cellphones pose a significant distraction, due to the fact that they keep the driver from using both hands, but experts differ as to whether the conversation itself is as distracting or perhaps more distracting. To view the full results of the study, see http://204.68.195.151/people/ncsa/.

QUALITY COMPROMISED, SAY SUPPLIERS A new automotive supplier-sponsored survey backs the suppliers' stance that the quality of components is suffering as the result of seemingly incessant cost-cutting from automakers. The so-called North American Automotive Supplier Survey, conducted by a research group called Planning Perspectives, polled suppliers on product quality in response to price reductions ordered by automakers. The survey also found that suppliers are sharing less technology as a result of the cost requirements. General Motors was ranked as the automaker placing greatest emphasis on component price over quality in the selection of suppliers, while Toyota was ranked high overall.

GM SAYS HIGHER MPG WILL MEAN MORE FATALITIES? General Motors has released a study that projects tighter fuel requirements could raise the traffic fatality rate due to the weight reduction in vehicles. The study comes just as Congress is considering higher federal fuel economy standards, and some suspect that GM is releasing the figures as a threat. GM says that higher fuel economy standards could result in an additional 400 deaths and 2000 injuries per year, as the result of a relatively minor weight reduction of a hundred pounds or more. GM did not also provide figures on the change of fatality rates due to the effect of its heavier SUVs on lighter passenger cars already on the road.

EU PRICE DIFFERENCES REMAIN New car prices still remain quite different in the fifteen European Union countries, according to the organization. The EU says that prices still remain highest in Britain, where they are boosted still more by the strong British pound. Germany and Austria also ranked as expensive places to purchase a car within the EU.

GOOD DRIVERS HAVE HIGH CREDIT LINES? Does someone's credit history have anything to do with how well he or she drives? Increasingly so, insurance companies think so, according to an AP report. State attorneys general and consumer advocates are opposing an increasingly common practice of auto insurance companies to include a driver's credit rating as a major factor in determining the premium cost. The companies attest that the credit rating is a good indicator of how risky the driver is, although others say that the practice unfairly discriminates against minorities and those with low income.

NHTSA INVESTIGATES RECALL REPLACEMENT TIRE The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has released its report on replacement tires used in place of the Firestone Wilderness AT tires recalled by Ford. Out of the eleven different tires on the list, the NHTSA has decided to open a defect investigation on the General Ameri 550 AS tire, only in the P235/70R16 size, citing seven crashes and two rollovers connected with failure of the tires. Unfortunately again for Ford, the Ameri 550 AS has been used as standard equipment on some F-150 pickup models. The agency says that 2.7 million of the tires have been made since 1995. For six of the ten other tires on the list, the NHTSA has no recorded incidents, but for four others there are some claims but not enough to open an investigation. For the full details, see http://www.fordreports.com.

DEATHS IN WORK ZONES AT A HIGH According to the latest National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics, the number of road workers killed in construction zones is now at a high. The NHTSA figures show that 872 people were killed in work zones in 1999, versus the previous high of 828 set in 1994. About 84 percent of the fatalities were attributed to motorists, with the remainder being highway workers. Speeding continues to be a serious problem in work zones despite rules in most states that double speeding fines.

CONSUMERS WANT MORE GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION In the newest issue of Transportation Journal, two professors at Northeastern University's School of Business Administration reveal research that most citizens are in support of federal intervention in most automotive regulatory issues. The investigators compared public interest in auto safety issues in 1972 with those today, and found more public support today. Sixty-two percent of those polled supported the use of sobriety checkpoints, and nearly two thirds of those polled supported the lowering of maximum blood alcohol standards from 0.08 percent to 0.06 percent.

NHTSA TO REQUIRE PRESSURE MONITORS According to the Washington Post, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is planning to announce a new standard that would require tire pressure warning systems in new vehicles made after November 2003. The new standard is likely a direct response to the ongoing Firestone tire recall investigation. Underinflation has been a key issue in the failure of some of the tread-separation tire failures on Ford Explorers. According to the report, the NHTSA proposal will require one of two possible tire pressure warning systems: one with a sensor for each tire triggering a warning if any one of the tires falls below twenty percent of the recommended pressure; or one that uses the anti-lock brake system’s speed sensors to estimate the pressure difference among the tires.

FORD DROPS INVESTIGATED REPLACEMENT TIRES A day after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that it would open an investigation into one of the Ford/Firestone recall replacement tires, Ford announced that it will stop using the tires. Earlier this week, the NHTSA revealed that about 2.7 million 16-inch size Ameri 550 AS tires made by Continental show an excessive rate of tread separation failures, especially in comparison to the other ten tires on the list of valid replacements. The agency plans to investigate the safety record of the tire, and upon completion it could request a recall if it deems necessary. Ford installs the Ameri 550 AS on some of its F-150 pickup models, and the automaker, citing an absence of incidents or complaints, has no plans to change to another tire.

SENATE VOTES FOR MEXICAN TRUCK INSPECTIONS The U.S. Senate has voted in favor of imposing stringent safety and inspection standards for Mexican trucks that will travel on U.S. highways. Opponents of the measure, including President Bush, say that the inspections would be in violation of the trade agreement between the U.S. and Mexico (that it would discriminate against Mexican truckers), but safety advocates--and now also the Senate--say that if Mexican trucks aren't given a thorough inspection, some potentially dangerous trucks will be out on U.S. highways. Advocates say that the inspection would be a vehicle issue anyway, not a trade issue. The U.S. is tentatively planning to open its borders to Mexican trucks in January.

NHTSA PROBES GM AIRBAG PROBLEM The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an investigation into whether a General Motors airbag recall should cover more vehicles. GM has recalled about 800 Pontiac Grand Prix sedans from the 1999 model year due to a potential problem with airbags that rupture during deployment. Some injuries have been reported from the problem. The NHTSA is considering similar airbags in its investigation, installed on 1998 to 2001 model-year Pontiac Montana minivans and Grand Prix cars.

NASSER AND FORD TO SHARE POWER Ford Motor Company has stepped up the power of company chairman William Clay Ford, Henry Ford's great-grandson, in the wake of the Firestone tire recall and quality woes. William Ford will now share more decision-making power with CEO Jacques Nasser, who until now has been the sole executive in charge of the company. In order to facilitate this, the company has created an "office of the chairman and CEO." The changes will not affect any of Nasser's responsibilities, although some insiders expect that the change is a move for William Ford to eventually have the CEO position.

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