• Jun 13, 2011
2010 Tesla Roadster Sport – Click above for high-res image gallery
Tesla Motors, Lamborghini and a handful of other low-volume automakers may lose a "hardship" exemption that allows for the sale of vehicles with airbags that fail to comply with current U.S. safety standards. According to Automotive News (sub. req.), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) may stop handing out waivers that allow vehicles without advanced airbags to be sold in the U.S.

The NHTSA's response to requests by Lotus and Tesla to renew their airbag-related exemptions reads as follows:
NHTSA tentatively concludes that the expense of advanced airbag technology is not now sufficient, in and of itself, to justify the grant of a petition for a hardship exemption from the advanced airbag requirement.
Tesla asked for the exemption to cover the Roadster, which the company will stop making later this year. The Model S, which goes on sale in mid-2012, will apparently have airbags that meet NHTSA standards.

It's not just Tesla that's potentially in a bind. Wheego – maker of the two-seat electric LiFe – may lose its exemption too. Les Seagraves, Wheego's vice-president of product development, told AN that:
We had been working on this vehicle for about three years and in order to put the advanced airbags in the car, it would have cost us another million and a half dollars and another 18 months of development. We're a tiny startup company. That would have pretty much put us out of business.
However, Seagraves clarified this taken-out-of-context quote by telling us that:
As a developer of all electric cars, the airbag exemption was used for the exact purpose it was designed: it allowed us to bring an important, innovative electric vehicle to market in a more timely manner. Had we not been granted the original waiver, we would still be in design phase rather than delivering the LiFe to our reservation holders and dealers.
The NHTSA began requiring advanced airbags back in 2004. However, the Agency allowed exceptions for automakers that produce less than 10,000 vehicles a year. As we see it, safety is paramount and exemptions – especially ones that could result in an increased risk of injury in the event of a crash – have got to go.

*UPDATE: Les Seagraves, Wheego's vice-president of product development, contacted AutoblogGreen via email to clarify the automaker's airbag-related exemption. Seagraves wrote:

Most importantly, we are not in danger of losing our current airbag exemption. Our current exemption carries us through manufacturing all the LiFe vehicles we plan to make, and our future models will have the advanced airbags. NHTSA is apparently considering not extending some waivers beyond their current expiration date; however, we have no plans at this time to apply for an extension so that decision will not affect us.

We did not receive our exemption based on financial hardship; it was granted to us based on making the development of low-emission vehicles easier without unreasonably lowering the safety level of the vehicles.


Photos copyright ©2009 Sebastian Blanco / AOL

[Source: Automotive News – sub. req.]


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 29 Comments
      skierpage
      • 4 Hours Ago
      I think the *advanced* airbag requirement is "Starting in the 2006 model year, all passenger cars and light-duty trucks must be equipped with sensors that identify children and very small adults and deploy the airbag with less force or not at all." I think low-volume makers should be allowed to skip the ruling, so long as they disclose they don't meet the advanced standard.
      LEONARD
      • 4 Hours Ago
      This air bag stuff is getting out of hand, wonder why a car cost as much as a house now, if you want more safety there are brands out there for you, next thing you knoe a bicycle will need air bags. p.s. until you have to do any kind of work on these advanced systems don't be so fast to jump on them.
      BipDBo
      • 4 Hours Ago
      Does NASCAR have airbags? No. Formula 1? No. Why? They aren't needed. This is my understanding on this issue. Please correct me if I am wrong. With a proper seat belt, an airbag is not needed nor is it helpful. Air bags are required because some people are too dumb or lazy to put on a seat belt. For those of us who wear our seat belt, the air bag is just extra weight and expense. Not only that, it is a danger to small children, so they now require smart airbags that are interlocked with a weight sensor in the seat so that it will be disabled if the passenger is under a certain weight. I've got a better idea. We make air bags an option, at the very least, for cars with "enhanced seat belts" (5 point restraints). If someone doesn't wear their seatbelt, and flies through the windshield, well, that person gets a Darwin award.
        Schmart Guy
        • 4 Hours Ago
        @BipDBo
        @BipDBo, Professional race car drivers also have to wear helmets, Head and Neck Support device and use a 5 point seat belt, which are more effective than air bags. Given the choice, most people would go with the seat belt, air bag combo. Seat belts alone will not allow cars to achieve the highest accident safety ratings.
        • 4 Hours Ago
        @BipDBo
        I agree with you, airbags were designed for those peoples that dont wear their seat-belts.
        EJ
        • 4 Hours Ago
        @BipDBo
        I mostly agree with what you're saying, however unless you're also wearing a helmet, side curtain airbags significantly reduce head trauma that a properly worn seatbelt can't prevent.
          BipDBo
          • 4 Hours Ago
          @EJ
          Your're right. A standard belt doesn't do much in a side impact. Curtain bags, although a good thing whether or not you are wearing a belt, are not in question here. I am arguing that with a proper seat belt, frontal air bags do not help.
        letstakeawalk
        • 4 Hours Ago
        @BipDBo
        Professional race car drivers have protections that passenger cars don't: roll cages and five point seat belts just to get started... Claiming that airbags should be optional is absurd in this day and age. Tesla (and their customers) can certainly afford the added expense.
        Drive EV
        • 4 Hours Ago
        @BipDBo
        Although it is now a law (finally) to wear seatbelts in the US, the safety regulation still require automakers to pass the crash tests WITHOUT seatbelts. It is pretty ridiculous in my humble opinion to have safety standards contradicting the law. The safety standards in Europe require the passengers (crash test dummies) to wear seatbelt during crash tests. This is surely one of the main reasons why cars like the Lotus and Tesla need the exemption in the US, as they were more than likely design to comply to the safety standards of the rest of the world. It's about time the US moves to the 21st century and adjust their regulation so they make sense.
          BipDBo
          • 4 Hours Ago
          @Drive EV
          Thanks for backing me up. If you look at the wikipedia article for seat belts, there is a telling graph which shows the estimated number of lives saved each year by seat belts and myair bags. The number saved by air bags is very small compared to seat belts. I wonder how many of those were of people who were nor wearing belts. If they did change the tesiting requirements so that the dummys were strapped in, I suspect that they may find that frontal air bags don't do much. It might actually cause manufacturers to optimize the design for seat belt wearers rather than non wearers, and improvements to belts and seats.
      veyron1001
      • 4 Hours Ago
      Wear an open face helmet? Its better to look retarded than be retarded.
      carney373
      • 4 Hours Ago
      A bit off topic but I still get annoyed looking at the Roadster's pushbutton transmission. It's actually far more intuitive and satisfying to move a physical lever than to reach down and fumble for buttons. Reminds me of the Model S touchscreen - ensuring eyes leaving the road rather than fingers finding buttons without needing to look. Pointless change for change's sake, rather than putting the driver first.
        letstakeawalk
        • 4 Hours Ago
        @carney373
        You could look at it as one less protrusion to cause injury. I agree with the pitfalls of touchscreens; I prefer dedicated knobs/switches that can be learned and placed in muscle memory.
      Joeviocoe
      • 4 Hours Ago
      "the expense of advanced airbag technology is not now sufficient" and "cost us another million and a half dollars" Somebody is lying. Or the NHTSA is only counting material/production cost of these advanced airbags... and NOT counting the bureaucratic costs of testing. Either way... 1.5 million is WAY too much for a technology that should be mature by now. I will tell Wheego what I tell GM... don't blame other people if you cannot do something in a cost effective manner. Whether that is blaming "low demand" because they cannot making an EV at an affordable price. Or blaming safety regulations because you assumed your vehicle will always be exempt from safety standards and did not prepare your design and testing departments with advanced airbags in mind... and now it will cost MUCH more to play catch up.
        • 4 Hours Ago
        @Joeviocoe
        To be fair, the cost to test the airbags is pretty high. You have to crash cars. Very expensive cars. Very expensive crash test dummies. It gets even uglier if you have a failure because you have to do it all over again. The airbag is not the only exemption given to small volume manufacturers.
      JakeY
      • 4 Hours Ago
      Tesla just needs it to last long enough for their Roadster. The Model S will definitely have advanced airbags. And to clarify "advanced" airbags means ones that can detect occupant weight and thus are child safe. These cars with exemptions DO have airbags, just not advanced ones.
      Ryan
      • 4 Hours Ago
      I would be fine driving the Tesla Roadster without an airbag. I would probably want to die if I crashed it. Has there ever been any testing done on 5-point harnesses (or 4 point) compared to airbags? Would it be possible to add in safety features into the seat and car frame that would take the place of them? There should be a program from the airbag makers to help install them in any car, without the million dollar development fees. It is kind of like the three wheel cars. I would feel safer in an experimental 4 wheel car, than a 3-wheel car that I know was trying to avoid the regulations.
        Chris M
        • 4 Hours Ago
        @Ryan
        The Roadster does have airbags, just not the "advanced" airbags, which are relatively new. The reason is that Tesla couldn't find any advanced airbags that fit, but older style airbags that did fit were available. A seat belt alone provides better crash protection than an air bag alone, but the safest option is to use both.
      throwback
      • 4 Hours Ago
      "We're a tiny startup company. That would have pretty much put us out of business." In otherwords, "we can't compete so give us an unfair advantage." As for lambo, if the VW group can't figure out how to put aircags in their cars they should not be selling them in the USA, and I like Lambos!
        letstakeawalk
        • 4 Hours Ago
        @throwback
        "The potential end to these exemptions will not affect Lamborghini as our current product offerings -- the Aventador and Gallardo models -- currently meet federal air bag requirements,” said Raffaello Porro, a spokesman for Lamborghini, based in Sant’Agata Bolognese, Italy."
      Dan Frederiksen
      • 4 Hours Ago
      the NHTSA should direct the airbag makers to sell their existing products at fair prices to all who want them. the problem seems to be that the clueless airbag makers don't want to sell airbags to small car companies. it's a common mental illness in the world of business that they refuse to sell their products however unlikely that sounds. A123systems is another case of such gargantuan stupidity. Tesla motors had problems getting batteries at first too afaik because the morons wouldn't sell them. if that airbag is no longer legal then that will affect Lotus too I think. it's a lotus steering wheel and airbag iirc. I don't know who makes it but every small car maker seems to use that specific model, probably because it's the only in the world willing to sell them. disgusting
        Rich
        • 4 Hours Ago
        @Dan Frederiksen
        Dan this is not a true statement. The airbags that meet the current FMVSS 208 requirements are cheap: piece price is ~$70 for a driver airbag and $100 for a passenger. Not alot of money. It the development costs and timing that goes into the design, testing , and validation is where the expense occurs. A full out restraints dev program is about 18 - 24 months and $6M - $10M. This includes CAE development and barrier testing.
        letstakeawalk
        • 4 Hours Ago
        @Dan Frederiksen
        "the problem seems to be that the clueless airbag makers don't want to sell airbags to small car companies." Terrible analysis, there. That's not what the issue is at all. Likewise, it's not about making a specific model of airbag illegal, either. Read the article again, and see that it's about the government deciding to begin requiring all manufacturers to have airbags, even if they make fewer than 10,000 vehicles per year. They're closing an exemption, because now airbags *are* so cheap and easy to implement.
          JakeY
          • 4 Hours Ago
          @letstakeawalk
          @letstakeawalk It's not just the price of the airbag itself (and associated sensors). It's also securing suppliers for an airbag that fits in your low volume car (and also designing the sensors into the seats). Besides from that, the price for testing is a lot more once you consider the low volume. For example, for the quoted $5-10 million for testing, that means in a $500-1000 a pop for a 10k unit car. A lot of these companies have cars closer to 1k units or less, which means 10x that ($5000-10,000). That really makes it a hardship compared to a sticker that says the airbag is not kid safe (what they are doing right now). From my reading, what the automakers seem to want is only for the exemption to last until they do the next generation of the model (when they have to do the testing anyways). That seems reasonable to me.
          Marco Polo
          • 4 Hours Ago
          @letstakeawalk
          @DF, No-one 'apologised you you! No one ever will! This is just another of your dishonest delusions to prop up your narcissistic ego!
          Dan Frederiksen
          • 4 Hours Ago
          @letstakeawalk
          good thing you apologized to me..
          JakeY
          • 4 Hours Ago
          @letstakeawalk
          This is not about normal airbags. All of these cars have airbags. This is about advanced airbags which have multi-stages and can detect passenger weight and position. Such airbags will cost more than simple ones.
          letstakeawalk
          • 4 Hours Ago
          @letstakeawalk
          *Corrected* Read the article again, and see that it's about the government deciding to begin requiring all manufacturers to have *advanced* airbags, even if they make fewer than 10,000 vehicles per year. They're closing an exemption, because now *advanced* airbags *are* so cheap and easy to implement. Thanks for pointing out a vital detail.
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