The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently responded to an open letter by the Tire Industry Association requesting clarification on certain aspects of the law mandating TPMS sensors on all cars post-2007. Specifically, the TIA was requesting clarification on 49 USC 30122(b); known as the “make inoperative” provision of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which mandates that "A manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business may not knowingly make inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter...”
What this means in essence is that any business which deals with TPMS systems; a tire shop, repair shop or independent installer, for example, may not do anything that would cause the TPMS system to not work. This seems pretty straightforward in theory, but there are a few scenarios in which it is difficult to determine the proper interpretation of the law. These interpretations will be of great interest and importance to my readers who are professionals, but any owners who have to deal with TPMS will find important information here too.
The TIA's letter asked for clarification on four scenarios:
1. If the customer comes in with a malfunctioning sensor that cannot be immediately replaced, can the shop temporarily replace it with a snap-in valve stem and return the car to service?
According to NHTSA, "a motor vehicle repair business would not be violating 49 USC 30122(b) by removing an inoperative or damaged TPMS sensor and replacing it with a standard snap-in rubber valve stem.”
"This is exactly why our training programs have always stressed the importance of checking the status of the TPMS prior to service," said Kevin Rohlwing, TIA senior vice president of Training. "If a valve stem sensor is not functioning prior to servicing the tires and wheels, then the retailer cannot violate the "make inoperative" provision because the system was already inoperative. This increases the importance of documenting an inoperable TPMS prior to any work being performed on the vehicle, especially now that the batteries in the sensors are starting to die."
This is pretty straightforward; if the sensor is already malfunctioning when the car comes in, the shop can do what is necessary to keep the car running. However, there are some further questions as to what exactly constitutes “inoperative” when the customer comes in. I'll address that further below.
2. If the customer has an extra set of wheels to be installed and refuses to either install the OEM sensors or purchase another set of sensors for those wheels, can the shop install the wheels?
According to NHTSA, "a service provider would violate the ‘make inoperative’ prohibition of 49 USC 30122(b) by installing new tires and wheels that do not have a functioning TPMS system. To avoid a "make inoperative" violation, the service provider would need to decline to install the new tires and rims, use the TPMS sensors from the original wheels (if they are compatible), or convince the motorist to purchase new TPMS sensors and ensure that the sensors are properly integrated with the vehicle's TPMS system."
"We are admittedly surprised by NHTSA's response that aftermarket tire and wheels must include TPMS sensors," said Roy Littlefield, TIA executive vice president. "Based on the language in the April 2005 Final Rule, we believed that the presence of the malfunction indicator lamp (MIL) would notify the driver that the TPMS was not operable as a result of their decision to decline new sensors or pay for the additional labor to install the original sensors in the aftermarket tire and wheel assemblies. While we have some genuine concerns regarding consumer backlash, it is clear that the Federal government is requiring retailers to make sure the TPMS continues to function following the purchase of aftermarket tires and wheels."
Mr. Littlefield has some concerns regarding “consumer backlash.” I have no such concerns, only certainties. There. Will. Be. Backlash. I'm going to have to start keeping the NHTSA letter available to show my customers who want to install winter tires and don't want to pay another $500 in a down economy.
NHTSA has repeatedly claimed that they do not believe that these regulations will hurt small businesses. Here's a hint for you, NHTSA: When you claim that small businesses will not be harmed, and then decide that small businesses must either convince customers to spend an extra $500 or more for new sensors or decline the business – those are mutually exclusive propositions. I know for a fact that many car owners will simply find a shop that either doesn't know the law or is willing to break it: It's unlikely the shop would get caught, and there's no legal downside at all for the car owner, as they have no exposure under the law.