A US crackdown on automakers’ manufacturing processes seems inevitable after a joint initiative announced by both American Houses.
Senator John Rockefeller IV, US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation chairman, as well as Representative Henry Waxman, House Committee on Energy and Commerce chairman, have both revealed their intent to adopt a concerted front surrounding vehicle safety issues.
The situation has been brought into sharp relief of course by the recent global recall sparked by Toyota’s much-publicised accelerator pedal problems, that saw millions of vehicles back in dealerships.
The two politicians have specifically mentioned legislation in their joint statements, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) seems certain to be tasked with identifying and subsequently implementing any concrete action.
“As Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, keeping consumers safe and protected is a top priority,” says Rockefeller. “Recent Toyota recalls reveal lapses in our auto safety monitoring system – and additional areas where we can do much better by the American consumer.”
But it is his next comment that will really have the manufacturers twitching. Rockefeller adds: “Shortly, I will introduce legislation that will hold automakers to a higher standard.”
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No details are yet available but the lawmakers have bared their teeth. Any upgrade of course is almost certainly going to cost, but will automakers take the pain or pass improved safety budgets on to consumers?
And Waxman backed up his colleague by highlighting the NHTSA’s role, also hinting at potentially greater powers for the body.
“Recent vehicle recalls underscore the need to ensure the NHTSA has the resources, expertise, and authority it needs to protect consumers from vehicle safety defects,” he said.
That key word ‘authority’ could well mean sweeping new measures although the lawmakers are keeping mum for the moment.
Nonetheless, vehicle safety in general and Toyota in particular, have hogged the headlines for much of this year and nowhere more so than in the US, where the Japanese boss himself was summoned to Washington to explain what he was going to do.
But as well as spawning a media frenzy, the Toyota situation appears to have triggered a rash of global recalls as manufacturers start to anticipate anything and everything that could see them also hauled before various national bodies.
Only yesterday, Porsche outlined it had recalled all 11,300 models of its Panamera sports cars due to potential seat belt mechanism concerns, while Toyota today – yet again – is in recall mode with its decision to request around 50,000 Sequoia SUVs from the 2003 model year return to dealerships to fix a problem with traction controls.
Ford has also recently recalled more than 33,000 vehicles to fix defective front seat manual recliners. This from the NHTSA: “In the event of a crash, the seatback and head restraint may move rearward, increasing the risk of injury.”
The NHTSA and its counterparts around the world have the best of intentions of course. But at what point does safety start to become such an issue that it begins to make purchasing prohibitively expensive?
There is feasibly no end to vehicle safety development or to potential legislation that could foresee issues ahead.
But as the recent Toyota furore shows, once a head of steam is built up surrounding safety, it becomes an almost self-perpetuating force, leading to a frenzy of activity that may or may not be warranted.
The human factor in all this is the unpredictable element. If consumers even have the merest hint – fuelled it has to be said by a media hungry for such things – that manufacturers aren’t playing the safety game – the genie is out of the bottle.
It’s a fine line to tread for automakers between assuaging consumer concerns and turning in a reasonable rate of return.