LEGISLATIVE AND TECHNICAL AFFAIRS
By Stuart Gosswein
U.S. Government Regulation of Specialty Auto Parts
A Guide to Compliance
At the federal level, automobiles and auto parts are regulated by two agencies: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). NHTSA oversees vehicle-safety issues.
SEMA members manufacture, distribute and retail parts and accessories for use on passenger cars, trucks, recreational and special-interest collector vehicles of all kinds. These products include performance, functional, restoration and styling-enhancement equipment of various designs and performance specifications. However, many of these parts are required to meet a variety of state and federal laws and regulations. Complying with these requirements is no easy task, but it can be made easier with a simple understanding of which parts are regulated, who regulates them and how manufacturers can innovate new products for automobiles within the bounds of the law. The following summarizes regulatory oversight basics.
At the federal level, automobiles and auto parts are regulated by two agencies: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). NHTSA oversees vehicle-safety issues. The EPA regulates vehicle emissions. States and local jurisdictions are permitted to establish their own safety laws and regulations as long as they do not conflict with a federal standard. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has the authority to establish tougher vehicle emissions standards, which other states may then adopt.
NHTSA issues Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) that establish minimum safety performance requirements for new cars and parts. There are only a handful of equipment safety standards. They cover items such as tires, lighting, brake hoses and glazing. The other safety standards set performance requirements for the entire vehicle. They are divided into three broad categories: crash avoidance (e.g., tire-pressure monitoring systems and electronic stability control), crashworthiness (e.g., front-, side- and rear-impact standards) and post-crash (e.g., fuel spillage and flammability).
It’s important to note that FMVSS only establishes performance requirements, not design mandates. For example, headlights must comply with certain photometric specifications, such as requirements on the amount, color and intensity of light to be produced, but their designs are not restricted to a specific shape, such as round or square.
The California Air Resources Board has the authority to establish tougher vehicle emissions standards, which other states may then adopt.
While most specialty auto parts are not directly covered by a safety standard, they are still subject to NHTSA oversight. First, equipment manufacturers, distributors and commercial installers cannot market or install a product that would knowingly take a vehicle out of compliance with a federal safety standard. This is called the “make inoperative” prohibition. For example, it would be illegal to market colored bulbs that, when installed, would not allow the required lamps to meet the color and performance requirements of the federal lighting standard. Second, a manufacturer must notify NHTSA when it has determined that an auto part has a safety-related defect. NHTSA will then work with the manufacturer on an appropriate remedy, such as customer notification and recall. NHTSA also has the authority to conduct its own safety investigations and may impose civil fines for failure to comply with its safety standards and other rules.
If covered by a safety standard, the manufacturer self-certifies that the equipment complies with the regulations. Certification is automatically presumed by NHTSA when the product is offered for sale. NHTSA is an agency within the Department of Transportation (DOT). NHTSA itself does not certify the products, although a few standards require that the DOT acronym be marked on the equipment as an affirmative declaration that the product meets the standard. A few safety standards require that other information also be marked on the equipment, such as manufacturer identification, date of manufacture and size or construction characteristics.
How does NHTSA regulate tires? NHTSA has established safety standards for all types of tires, from retreads to truck tires. FMVSS No. 139 covers all new radial tires for use on passenger cars, trucks, buses and trailers with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 10,000 lbs. or less.
A manufacturer or installer must have a reasonable basis for concluding that a specialty auto part will meet a safety standard or not trigger the make-inoperative prohibition when installed. A reasonable basis could be formed through an engineering analysis, computer simulation and/or actual testing. Submission of documentation to NHTSA is not required, although all documentation should be kept by the manufacturer and installer for future reference.
Companies that manufacture or import any equipment covered by an FMVSS are required to register with NHTSA. The company is then placed in NHTSA’s manufacturer database, which is categorized by product type. There are separate registration requirements for manufacturers of tires, retreaded tires, brake hoses and glazing, since NHTSA also assigns manufacturer identification numbers to be used on these items.
Imported equipment is also subject to NHTSA standards and oversight. Foreign manufacturers, assemblers and importers are required to designate a permanent resident of the United States as the manufacturer’s agent for service of process, notices, orders and decisions. This rule applies to all types of imported equipment, regardless of whether it is covered by the FMVSS. This guarantees that someone in the United States is accountable if there is a problem with a vehicle or item of equipment.
State and Local Jurisdictions
States and local jurisdictions are free to enact equipment regulations that are identical to NHTSA standards or, in the absence of a federal rule, establish their own laws and regulations. Frequent examples of separate state or local standards are laws covering auxiliary lighting equipment such as fog lamps, sound levels for exhaust and stereo systems, bumper/frame-height restrictions and window-tinting transmittance parameters. It is the responsibility of the manufacturer to be aware of federal, state and local laws and regulations in order to meet all legal requirements.
It’s important to note that the FMVSS establish only performance requirements, not design mandates. For example, headlights must comply with certain photometric specifications, such as requirements on the amount, color and intensity of light to be produced, but their designs are not restricted to a specific shape, such as round or square.
Emissions-related aftermarket parts are regulated by the EPA, CARB and various other state-level air-quality agencies. California established its own clean-air law before the federal Clean Air Act (CAA) was enacted into law and has the authority to put in place more stringent vehicle-emissions standards. Other states may adopt those stricter standards.
Parts and components affecting the emissions of a motor vehicle are subject to anti-tampering laws and require testing and certification to demonstrate that they do not unacceptably increase emissions. Air filters, camshafts, exhaust headers, fuel filters, intake/exhaust components, transmissions and turbochargers are examples of parts regulated by the EPA and CARB. It is illegal to knowingly manufacture, sell or install a part or component that would negatively affect emissions performance. It is also illegal to knowingly remove or render inoperative any device already installed for emissions compliance.
In 1974, the EPA issued Memorandum 1A to clarify enforcement of the CAA’s prohibitions. Simply put, aftermarket emissions-related equipment is self-certified by the manufacturer as being compliant with the CAA, and the manufacturer must have a “reasonable basis” to conclude that the equipment will not take the vehicle out of compliance. Although no test data is required to be submitted to the EPA, the agency has the right to investigate a company’s methods for forming a reasonable basis. Under Memorandum 1A, testing the product to the Federal Test Procedure (FTP), including useful-life durability testing, is deemed by the EPA to be a reasonable basis.
To receive an EO, a manufacturer must provide the California Air Resources Board with a description of the part to be sold or installed and the vehicles for which it is produced. SEMA’s “Black Book” walks through the basic steps for obtaining an EO and includes tips on how to simplify the process.
While the EPA relies upon self-certification, CARB requires the submission and approval of test data to prove that emissions-related aftermarket equipment sold into the state is compliant. Once reviewed and approved, CARB will assign an Executive Order (EO) number to the tested product, which the manufacturer should then mark on the product, its packaging and marketing materials. The EPA recognizes an EO from CARB as a reasonable basis for concluding that the part does not take a vehicle out of compliance under Memorandum 1A. Parts awarded an EO by CARB for legal sale and use in California are generally considered legal for sale and use in the other 49 states.
To receive an EO, a manufacturer must provide CARB with a description of the part to be sold or installed and the vehicles for which it is produced. If CARB requires testing, it will list the vehicle(s) on which the part must be tested by make, model, year and possible engine family. Vehicles are grouped into engine families or test groups for exhaust emissions and into evaporative families for evaporative emissions. Within each family, the vehicles share similar designs and are expected to have similar emission characteristics. An EO is issued to certify equipment for an engine family in combination with one or more evaporative families. The EO is valid for equipment produced during the specified model year. Equipment produced for future model-year vehicles require another EO. Thousands of emission-related products made by SEMA-member manufacturers have been granted EO numbers.
SEMA’s “Black Book” (www.sema.org/blackbook) walks through the basic steps for obtaining an EO and includes tips on how to simplify the process. Since the EO tests do not include EPA in-use durability tests, it is the preferred method for demonstrating compliance for both the EPA and CARB. Note that some companies use a “49-state legal” disclaimer for a product that does not have an EO. The EPA considers such a disclaimer to be invalid unless the product has satisfied the EPA’s FTP and durability testing requirements.
For additional information on this topic, with links to even more resources, visit to www.sema.org/federal-regulation-aftermarket-parts.
SEMA PAC President’s Club Spotlight: Dave Wrobleski
Dave Wrobleski is the vice president of operations at Jim Wrobleski & Co., which is headquartered in Michigan City, Indiana. He is an eight-year member of the SEMA PAC President’s Club and previously served on SEMA’s Board of Directors.
“In the specialty-equipment side of the automotive aftermarket, there are several forces we have no control over,” Wrobleski said. “When it comes to government regulations at the state and federal level, we must be vigilant. Our voices need to be heard. In continuing to support our industry and livelihood, I feel that being a member of the President’s Club is an absolute must.”
For more information on SEMA PAC, please contact SEMA PAC and Congressional Relations Manager Christian Robinson at 202-783-6007 x20 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
|In the Know…
Does NHTSA regulate off-road vehicles? NHTSA regulates “motor vehicles” that are manufactured primarily for use on public streets, roads and highways. While vehicles that are primarily manufactured for off-road use (such as ATVs and dirt bikes) are not motor vehicles subject to NHTSA oversight, they may be subject to the jurisdiction of the Consumer Product Safety Commission or a state agency.
Is “DOT-approved” a legal term? No. NHTSA has no authority to approve or disapprove vehicle equipment. The equipment is self-certified. Sometimes the term is confused with the DOT symbol, which is required to be placed by the manufacturer on certain items of equipment, such as headlamps. This is simply an affirmative statement by the manufacturer that the equipment complies with an applicable NHTSA rule.
How do federal and state governments regulate lighting equipment? The FMVSS establishes performance requirements for basic lighting equipment (e.g., headlamps, taillamps, side reflectors, etc.). NHTSA will also ban certain supplemental lighting equipment that may distract or confuse other drivers, such as lights mounted on hubcaps or wheel rims. A state may regulate equipment not covered by FMVSS, with many states enacting laws pertaining to auxiliary lamps such as fog lamps, light bars and decorative LED lights.
How does NHTSA regulate tires? NHTSA has established safety standards for all types of tires, from retreads to truck tires. FMVSS No. 139 covers all new radial tires for use on passenger cars, trucks, buses and trailers with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 10,000 lbs. or less. FMVSS No. 109 applies to bias-ply tires and several other special tire categories. Both standards have labeling requirements.
How do foreign countries regulate specialty auto parts? Just as products imported into the United States are subject to American law, products exported to a foreign country are subject to that country’s laws. SEMA works with foreign governments to make sure that those laws and regulations are “aftermarket-friendly” and do not impose any unreasonable restrictions.
What are “Letters of Interpretation”? While the law is intended to be unambiguous, there are times when it is unclear how a law or regulation applies to a particular circumstance. In this instance, NHTSA can issue a “letter of interpretation” in response to a request for guidance from a company or individual. Such letters are very useful for the industry’s understanding of how a law will be applied. They represent the agency’s opinion and are advisory in nature. NHTSA’s database of interpretation letters is located at http://isearch.nhtsa.gov.
Disclaimer: This document is a simplified description of the requirements for manufacturers of motor vehicles and motor-vehicle equipment as of the date it was published. Additional information is maintained on the SEMA website (www.sema.org). Manufacturers should always consult the applicable statutes and regulations for a current and more detailed description of requirements.