The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is taking aim at noncompliant parts and the companies that are importing them into the United States.

And it has plenty of support.

In response to NHTSA's request for guidance on recommended best importer practices to enhance the safety of imported motor vehicles and equipment, comments were received in August by a task force of North American parts suppliers, including the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA), Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association (AASA), Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association (HDMA), Original Equipment Manufacturers Association (OESA), and two independent groups managed by MEMA: the Transportation Safety Equipment Institute (TSEI) and Motor Vehicle Lighting Council (MVLC).

Ann Wilson, MEMA's senior VP for government affairs, says NHTSA probably will re-publish a best-practices document this fall, then “publicize it and push it.

“We think NHTSA's on the right track,” Wilson says. “We're very supportive of what they're doing on import safety and we're going to continue to work with them closely so we can make sure there are safe products on the shelf to buy.”

The supplier task force held weekly meetings for a month to review the NHTSA draft document, discuss the intent, and prepare extensive comments. The two key MEMA task-force recommendations:

  • That NHTSA's product-marking recommendation go beyond just the “country of origin” mark by adding the following: manufacturer name or trademark; date or date range of manufacture; and any marking requirements from an industry standard or recommended practice.

  • That the NHTSA guidance include more details regarding documentation — particularly to incorporate the principles behind “design to conform” methodology and standardized quality planning and process systems.

Big business

According to MEMA's task force, motor vehicle parts suppliers are the nation's largest manufacturing sector, directly employing 783,100 US workers and contributing to 4.5 million private industry jobs across the country. Suppliers manufacture the parts and technology used in the domestic production of more than 11 million new cars and trucks each year, as well as the aftermarket products necessary to repair and maintain over 247 million vehicles on the road today.

The problem is that the marketplace is being flooded with parts that do not comply.

“Brakes are big business,” HDMA president Tim Kraus says. “Replacement parts are big business. In China, it is a very common practice to copy parts. A brake valve sells for a couple of bucks. It's a pretty easy thing to copy. It's also pretty easy to violate patents on products. So they try to do things to circumvent patents in some cases. So they produce a part that's similar in appearance to something that's used here and complies with safety requirements here, yet theirs doesn't. We have seen an influx of, for lack of a better term, bogus parts.

“As HDMA, we have become concerned with safety-related products — spring bars, brake adjusters, brake shoes, brake hardware kits, all of those things that are manufactured to a standard here that wouldn't necessarily be complied with. So the work we're doing on this is making sure that anything that comes in is compliant. Nobody has any problem with something being made in China — or India or Vietnam or wherever it might be — as long as it fits the marketplace here.”

Kraus says that HDMA has monitored the issue closely through its Heavy Duty Brake Manufacturers Council and Brand Protection Council, which deal with noncompliant-parts and intellectual-property issues. He says the best-practices document is a “big step for us with NHTSA” because it recognizes that there must be more than a country-of-origin sticker on the product.

“They have to have traceability,” he says. “If something is manufactured by one of our member companies like Bendix or ArvinMeritor and the part fails, there is traceability that's built into that particular piece of product. They can go back to everything between the finished product and raw-material suppliers to try to identify where the breakdown was in the quality operating system or in the compliance end of things.

“The same standards don't exist for a lot of products coming in from overseas, and it should. If you have brake failure and a part fails, obviously something went wrong with the way it was made. You need to identify where the breakdown occurred and whether it was something happenstance or if it was an actual breakdown of the quality operating system they use for manufacturing that part, or if none existed. That's very important when dealing with safety equipment.”

Summer of discontent

Wilson says that last summer's spate of issues regarding the safety of imported products — particularly toys, drugs, and tires — led to the formation of an interagency panel in Washington, DC, that included a NHTSA representative. That led to a best-practices document, which was analyzed by those in the parts industry.

“The ultimate purpose is to ensure that we have safe products coming into the US that are used on motor vehicles,” she says. “There are a lot of parts coming in, particularly in the aftermarket of heavy and light vehicles, many manufactured by companies that are household names, where we know who the manufacturer is and the manufacturer has good controls over what's going on in the manufacturing process abroad, whether it's in India or China or anywhere else. But a lot also are being manufactured by companies we are not as familiar with and being brought in by importers of record, not manufacturers.

“If there is a problem with a product — if it doesn't meet the safety standard, like tires did last summer — who do you go to to make sure the product is safe? How do you know there is testing being done? If a recall is necessary or any kind of safety promotional campaign is necessary, who can the consumer contact or the government contact? We believe as an industry that this has to be transparent, that consumers and NHTSA know who is responsible for the products being brought into the US.

“This industry does some round-robin testing on different products. We work with NHTSA closely. We need to make sure NHTSA has sufficient resources to test products and we need to work with different people. If fleets buy a product and don't think it's safe, then they need to work with us so we can work with NHTSA and get the stuff off the shelves. NHTSA has the right to recall products if there is a safety standard associated with it, and they also have the right to remove a product from the shelves if there is a safety implication and the product is not safe. For instance, if it's an aftermarket product where there's no regulation associated with it, but they test it and it doesn't do what it's supposed to do, then they can order that product be removed. That's one of things they said with this rulemaking.”

Task-force comments

In Docket No. NHTSA 2008-0113, submitted August 7, the task force agrees with NHTSA's determination that the importer of motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment is deemed the “manufacturer” of the imported product and is responsible for the safety of products and compliance with FMVSS. There are two broad categories of importers: US and foreign manufacturers who import product and non-manufacturer importers.

The task force notes that non-manufacturer importers may or may not specialize in a particular automotive product or line of automotive products, and “recent experience in the aftermarket suggests that risk of defective and/or non-compliant product entering the US is higher among non-manufacturers than among manufacturers. (Examples include tires, valve stems, lighting, booster cables, and fuses.) Greater scrutiny of imported products may be warranted at the border and on the product once in the stream of commerce. The agency's recommended best practices should be designed to facilitate such scrutiny by enhancing manufacturer/importer accountability and product traceability.”

NHTSA's safety standards require, in most cases, that equipment subject to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) be permanently marked or labeled with the manufacturer's name or code and the indication of self-certified compliance — generally denoted by the symbol “DOT” — inscribed on the equipment item in a prescribed location or placed on the exterior of the container in which the equipment item is shipped. That includes brake hoses (FMVSS 106), headlamps, replaceable headlamp bulbs and reflective tape (FMVSS 108), brake fluid (FMVSS 116), tires (FMVSS 109, 119, and 139), warning devices (FMVSS 125), glazing materials (FMVSS 205), and seatbelt assemblies (FMVSS 209).

Although FMVSS 108 does not require manufacturer identification or “DOT” mark on any lamps other than headlamps, most lighting and conspicuity company members of MEMA, TSEI, and MVLC voluntarily mark such products with the manufacturer's name and a date, following the recommended practices contained in Society of Automotive Engineers Recommended Practice J759 (SAE J759), “Lighting Identification Code.”

The task force believes that in order to “facilitate the identification of noncompliant signal lamps and traceability to the manufacturer or importer, these products should be marked per SAE J759.”

The task force also believes that voluntary product marking should be widely encouraged for all imported aftermarket equipment — “particularly products critical to safety. NHTSA's regulations do not currently contain a requirement that equipment not subject to an FMVSS be marked. But non-FMVSS regulated products constitute the vast majority of aftermarket equipment imported into this country.

“Therefore … MEMA recommends — in addition to the country of origin mark — that imported, non-FMVSS products as well as FMVSS products with no marking requirement, be marked — at a minimum — with the name or trademark of the fabricating manufacturer or importer, the date or date range of manufacture, and any marks specified in industry recommended practices or standards. As with FMVSS-regulated equipment, having additional information about a product's source increases accountability and traceability. This is especially important should a product or group of products become the subject of a defect investigation and/or recall action.”

Measuring against standards

The task force says that it supports NHTSA's advice to importers: that apart from FMVSS, they measure the product's design against similar products produced by other manufacturers; and when no FMVSS applies, they measure against voluntary industry standards and recommended practices.

“MEMA supports a ‘design to conform’ methodology that manufacturers utilize in their product development. NHTSA uses the term ‘reasonable care’ to express overall design and manufacturing expectations. While the meaning of reasonable care is implied, design to conform includes a multitude of steps necessary to originate, plan, create, develop, verify, and manufacture products that, in good faith, consistently meet the established requirements of the respective device when properly installed and applied. Essentially, this methodology serves as a ‘process map’ from design to production; from certification to application.”

It recommends the following points be incorporated as part of the best practices described in Section 2, “Exercise Great Care in Selecting Foreign Manufacturers”:

  • Design related. Technical description of product function, clear indication on the drawings of all critical dimension, all tolerances for parts indicated, and all material specifications, all test requirements and test reports, and certification reports (clear documentation and summaries of test results).

  • Manufacturing specifications. Process sheets showing complete details, process control plans detailing statistical process controls (part selection criteria, test requirements, plans to address non-conformity), recovery plans, and steps taken once the non-conforming product is identified.

“Documentation of product design, testing, and manufacturing process should be diligently maintained. This will allow the manufacturer to readily produce, if necessary, the appropriate records to demonstrate compliance with mandated FMVSS performance requirements or validation to voluntary industry standards and recommended practices. Such documentation can become particularly important in the event of changes to a product — whether it be a change in material components, manufacturing process, or test procedures (mandatory and voluntary).”

The task force also believes the principles behind ISO/TS16949 or equivalent quality systems should be used to review records regarding the development of products, the quality planning methodology, and the method to improve the ongoing quality and performance of the products being manufactured. ISO/TS16949, which is used by many manufacturers in the industry, is the development of a quality management system that provides for continual improvement, emphasizing defect prevention and the reduction of variation and waste in the supply chain. It applies to the design and development, production, and, as relevant, the installation and servicing of automotive-related products.

The task force believes it should be included in the final best practices document under Section 4, “Inspect Goods Either Before They Are Exported to or Distributed in the United States.”