Auto Outlook: Federal shutdown stalled auto safety regulators

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer  |  Oct. 6, 2013 at 5:30 AM
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One of the federal agencies affected by Congress' fight over a stopgap government funding bill is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

NHTSA sent more than half of its 600 workers home Tuesday and suspended safety defect investigations, field crash investigations, customer complaint reviews and notification of new vehicle and equipment recalls.

"Due to a lapse of Federal Government funding, NHTSA is unable to post any new recalls after the close business Sept. 30, 2013. Consumers can continue to file safety defect complaints via this website, but they will not be evaluated by NHTSA staff until funding and services are restored," a notice on the agency website said.

The partial government shutdown furloughed 800,000 personnel considered non-essential and also stopped the agency's consideration of new car assessments and safety regulations like rear visibility standards for vehicles.

However, Jenny Lin, U.S. economist for the Ford Motor Co., told The Detroit News the first federal government shutdown in 17 years should not affect auto sales as long as consumers have faith in the economic recovery.

Consumer confidence drives U.S. auto sales and Lin says it's "too early to tell" how an extended federal shutdown would affect future sales.

South Korean automaker Hyundai Tuesday announced its Hyundai Assurance program providing vehicle loan and lease payment relief to people who lose their jobs would begin for federal employees out of work during the shutdown.

Under the program, furloughed federal workers won't have to make vehicle payments to Hyundai Capital of America until they are recalled. Any idled federal employee who wants to buy a Hyundai in October won't have to make the first payment until December.

"We recognize the impact on family budgets the furlough will drive," Hyundai Motor America CEO John Krafcik said in a statement. "Like we did almost four years ago when we launched Hyundai Assurance, this is our way of saying, 'We've got your back' during this uncertain time."

Ford and Chrysler reported their September sales jumped 5.8 percent and 0.7 percent, respectively, while General Motors said sales dipped 11 percent last month.

Ford had its best September in seven years thanks to strong sales of F-Series pickups and Fusion and Fiesta passenger cars. Toyota saw U.S. sales drop 4 percent from September a year ago, Nissan reported a 6 percent sales dip and Volkswagen of America said its sales were down 12.2 percent.

Monthly vehicle sales were down for the first time in 27 months, since June 2011, partly because the Labor Day weekend came in August giving September two fewer sales days than last year.

Safety advocates demand action on rear-view cameras

Safety groups weary of waiting for government action on a mandate for backup cameras in vehicles have gone to court.

Consumers Union, the parent of Consumer Reports, joined Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Kids And Cars Inc., and two parents of a 2-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl killed in separate back-over accidents to file suit in September after the Transportation Department recommended rear-view cameras under its New Car Assessment Program -- but did not require them as standard equipment.

The groups petitioned the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York to order Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to issue a rule mandating rear-view cameras within 90 days.

In 2008, Congress directed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set federal standards for rear visibility. The initial deadline in 2011 passed more than two years ago. Before he left office in June, former Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood delayed the deadline a fourth time, until January 2015.

Automakers initially supported a requirement for rear-view cameras but backed off it as more car companies began offering the systems and consumers began choosing the option. An estimated 80 percent of all new vehicles now offer a rear-view camera as either standard equipment or an option, and about half of new vehicles sold are equipped with a back-up video system, automobile research site says.

When the legislation was passed it was estimated the back-up camera regulation -- which was supposed to be fully implemented in September -- would cost the auto industry $2 billion to $3 billion annually.

Some automakers want rear-view cameras to remain optional while regulators consider alternatives such as blind spot monitoring technology with sensors that beep when someone or something is behind a vehicle. A backup camera adds $160 to $200 to the cost of a vehicle.

"This is a decision for consumers, not the government, said a spokeswoman for the industry group Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents a dozen U.S. and foreign carmakers.

About 100 children less than 5 years of age are killed each year in back-over accidents. NHTSA estimates requiring rear-view cameras in all vehicles would reduce overall fatalities from about 300 a year by two-thirds. A parent or close relative was driving in 70 percent of such accidents, the Transportation Department said.

"As we've seen with other features in the past, adding rear-view video systems to our list of recommended safety features will encourage both automakers and consumers to consider more vehicles that offer this important technology," Foxx said in a statement.

Consumers can go to to find out which vehicle models include a rear-view video camera system.

Jeep resumes Cherokee production in Ohio

Chrysler's high-stakes reintroduction of the Jeep Cherokee was stalled by quality and transmission problems that halted production at an Ohio assembly plant.

Jeep had some 4,000 Cherokees parked at the Toledo Assembly Complex last week when it resumed production of the all-new crossover it hopes to begin shipping to dealers by the end of October. Production of the new midsize Jeep began in June with two shifts assembling up to 900 Cherokees a day.

Chrysler reinstated the second shift at Toledo Northlast Monday, a Chrysler spokeswoman said in an email to The Detroit News.

"As we continue to refine the vehicle's powertrain software, we are implementing a plan that will allow us to make the required updates more quickly than anticipated, thereby making additional layoffs unnecessary at this time," the email said.

Chrysler last month decided to stop the assembly line until engineers could figure out what was wrong with programming of the Cherokee's new nine-speed transmission designed by Germany's ZF auto supplier. The Cherokee also has a choice of two new engines.

"We continue to refine the vehicle's powertrain calibration," Chrysler said in a statement to "This is the world's first application of a highly technical nine-speed transmission; on top of that, it is being mated to two new engines and three complex 4x4 systems. We will introduce the vehicle to consumers as soon as that process is complete."

The all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee will sell for $22,995 for an entry-level, front-wheel-drive Sport model, $400 less than the Jeep Liberty it replaces. A top-of-the-line, off-road ready Trailhawk model with a 271-hp V-6 engine will sell in the $30,000s.

The aerodynamic Cherokee with a 2.4-liter, 184-hp, four-cylinder engine can get as much as 31 miles per gallon on the highway, 25 mpg in combined city-highway driving.

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