UNCOMPROMISING SAFETY CAMPAIGNER
By TA News Bureau :
The Massachusetts-based Safety Research & Strategies (SRS) provides research, investigation, analysis and advocacy on safety matters, particularly in motor vehicle issues. SRS President Sean Kane, who formerly worked for Ralph Nader’s safety organization, has given technical support before courts in many cases of safety breaches. He heads a multi-disciplinary team of specialists who work on fact-based research and analysis on injuries associated with product hazards ranging from motor vehicle to consumer and industrial products to medical devices. In an interview to Tyre Asia the well-known safety analyst, whose work was instrumental in the recall of Firestone Tires, faulty Toyota vehicles and Takata airbags and campaigned for clear date-of-manufacture codes on tyres, speaks on a wide range of automotive safety issues. Excerpts
When you look back at the evolution of safety performance of automobiles and tyres since the Explorer/Firestone catastrophes, what you find are the current positive and negative issues that should be of concern to vehicle users and manufacturers?
The Explorer/Firestone crises spawned the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act which resulted in the first significant upgrades in decades to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (MVSSs) for tyre performance. It also resulted in the creation of Early Warning Reporting (EWR) requirements, which compel automobile, tyre and other equipment manufacturers to file, among other information quarterly death, injury and property damage claims, and helped push forward stability and rollover protection requirements. These regulations have led to more robust tyres, fewer light truck rollovers and better occupant protection.
The downside is that EWR is still underutilized as a potential defect surveillance tool and the limits on reporting requirements, particularly for tyres, continue to hamper policymakers and researchers from identifying real-world problems.
A significant concern is the continued lack of individual machine-readable tyre identification. It’s amazing that such technologically advanced products that have a huge impact on vehicle safety cannot by easily identified, tracked, or recalled in 2017.
Have consumer watchdogs and government regulatory authorities influenced the development of virtually fool proof measures and monitoring to ensure product safety?
Product safety monitoring has clearly been influenced by consumer advocates and regulators. But there are no fool proof measures for monitoring product safety post-market. Multi-faceted approaches that adopt best practices are needed – and technology offers many new tools to improve safety monitoring. Unfortunately, many of the requirements associated with monitoring have been spawned from defect crises that were preventable – and known by the manufacturers long before the public and watchdogs.
How will you assess government and industry response to issues of Volkswagen cheating and Takata airbag controversies?
In general, the government and industry responses to defect catastrophes have been very poor. In particular, the Takata airbag defect crisis could have been prevented if best practices were actually followed. Long before the issue became high-profile, it was clear to the OEs and regulators the company was unable to manage its manufacturing quality and its strategy to lower costs by using ammonium nitrate as an airbag propellant was far too risky. NHTSA had a chance to intervene in 2009 when it opened a recall investigation, but neglected to seriously probe Honda and Takata’s shifting explanations for the ruptures. It was a red flag. Meanwhile, the OEs willingness to drive through their own red lights in order to save money has been a disaster for the companies involved, consumers and the supply chain. The race to the bottom for short-term cost savings are not sustainable strategies.
For its part, NHTSA’s lack of enforcement helped enable the Takata crises. Their failure to adequately investigate allowed the OEs to initiate “rolling recalls” in which more and more vehicles were slowly added to the campaigns with conflicting root cause explanations. Adding to this, the agency’s willingness to view OEs as victims of a rogue supplier demonstrates a lack of understanding of the depth of involvement the OEs had and their supplier quality measures that were ignored over and over again as they continued to install defective safety equipment in their vehicles.
US safety regulations, their enforcement and activism by Safety Research & Strategies are factors influencing the government and opinion makers in initiating safety measures on an ongoing basis. How do you plan to work with regulators in other countries, particularly China and India, the world’s fastest growing automotive and tyre markets?
We continue to research and monitor vehicle safety issues globally to better understand the problems that are affecting motorists. It is increasingly clear that regulators in other countries are playing a larger role that can affect outcomes for consumers in the U.S. and around the globe. We will be encouraging regulators to work with NGOs and to view them as important partners in their pursuit of consumer safety and protection. We’re also encouraging regulators of the importance of data collection and accessibility of the data. Lessons learned from the past and emerging safety matters are often left unaddressed because of the lack of robust data and that has led to a “no data, no problem” mentality that leaves problems festering for years.
Can you elaborate on your perceptions about tyre age regulations? In the context of China’s surging ‘budget tyre’ exports, how do you plan to bring them under strict regulatory scan?
NHTSA did some of the best research work we’ve seen on tyre age degradation. However, their failure to turn that research into something meaningful for consumers is disappointing. There is still an opportunity to address this vis-à-vis a requirement for a machine-readable TIN or tyre identification. Scan capabilities can provide service providers and consumers with information they need to make decisions about what should remain in service based on the manufacturers’ recommendations.
Clearly tyre service life is affected first and foremost by construction and design and by storage and service conditions. Thus, manufacturers have the opportunity to set the worst-case service life for the products they make. If a tyre maker wants to sell a budget tyre then they have an obligation to inform the buyer of its service life. The ability of service providers and consumers to know when a tyre service life is done – regardless of outward appearance and tread depth – can be achieved with readily available scanning capabilities and that should address tyre makers concerns that service life is not a one-size-fits all strategy.
Do you think that airless tyres that are going to get commercialized in the next two to five years could help reduce accidents? What is the future of pneumatic tyres?
When I saw the Michelin Tweet on a modified Morris at SEMA in 2013, I was hopeful that this product would be close to market for passenger vehicles. There is a place for non-pneumatic tyres – and they may potentially improve safety. But I don’t believe the pneumatic tyre is going away anytime soon.
It is forecast that 10 million self-driving cars will be on the roads by 2020. All of them will have lightweight and low rolling resistance tyres. Are regulators ready for this change in mobility?
Regulators are not ready and they are making significant mistakes by failing to provide regulatory protections applicable to autonomous vehicles. Even before autonomous vehicles, the regulators have failed to set requirements for the functional safety of the electronic technologies in today’s non-autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles. History has shown leaving safety to the marketplace is often results in unnecessary loss of life, and consumer trust, and paves the path to the next significant defect crisis.
What is your vision for global safety standards for tyres and vehicles that would be flexible and dynamic enough to ensure passenger safety in the context of ongoing technology disruptions?
The upgraded FMVSSs have gone a long way towards improving tyres. However, continuing evaluations of real-world conditions and performance is necessary, as well as anticipating how new technologies can affect performance. This should start with a requirement that tyres have individual machine-readable identification. That data should be used to supplement a wide variety of assessments including post-crash, in-service and consumer-reported evaluations. The promise of automotive technology can only be unlocked if its effects are adequately understood.