WASHINGTON - From the inception of the Windstar minivan, Ford Motor Co. wanted it to be a vehicle that could be sold in Europe as well as in North America.
Still, the company had to engineer about 100 unique components at a cost of $40 million to make Windstar comply with European regulations, said Bill King, regulatory manager for safety and energy in Ford's Washington office.
He cited the case as a classic example of how differences in regulations in major markets have a direct impact on company bottom lines, and ultimately on consumers, and why harmonization of rules is needed.
Cases keep occurring because harmonization - the process of eliminating differences in safety and environmental regulations worldwide - has been more of a theory than a practice.
Now, after decades of discussion among governments and industry, there are small signs of movement, but some industry executives worry that the pace is far too slow, and that the most costly regulations remain off the table.
GOAL: ONE TEST
'It's a slow process. We knew it would be. But it's a little slower than it needs to be,' said Barry Felrice, senior manager of regulatory affairs for DaimlerChrysler. The ultimate goal, elusive as it may be, is that each vehicle be 'tested once, certified once, and accepted everywhere,' he said.
On the positive side, top officials of automotive trade associations from the United States, Europe and Japan and some manufacturer representatives met in Washington in late September and agreed to push ahead with work on regulations they believe will be relatively easy to harmonize.
They cover such topics as windshield washing, wiping, defrosting and ventilating; seat belt assemblies; brakes; window glass; and tires.
Vann Wilber, director of vehicle safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said that even though the rules are fairly simple, they will likely take about two years to harmonize. If the process works, Wilber said, automakers will tackle 'the real big issues for us' - crash standards.
The revived harmonization effort is to be governed by a U.N.-sanctioned international agreement reached in Geneva last year.
Any harmonized regulation would have to be adopted by the controlling regulatory authority in each country. In the United States, that is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Although the recently departed NHTSA Administrator, Dr. Ricardo Martinez, was a supporter of the movement, some recent agency decisions cause industry executives to temper their optimism about prospects for harmonization.
For example, King said U.S. regulators appear intent on rewriting their side-impact crash standards instead of considering adoption of European-style rules, as car companies had suggested.
Also, new NHTSA rules on anchors for child safety seat tethers are different from those already in effect in Canada, which makes the concept of harmonization meaningless, Felrice said.
Automakers understand that some countries may be justified -for reasons of climate, terrain or population density - in having some unique regulatory requirements, Felrice said. But they are frustrated that governments can't even agree on the same crash test dummies.
'People are the same. They get injured in the same ways,' he added.
King and Felrice, who addressed harmonization issues at an international conference at George Wash-ington University on Oct. 14, both said the absence of harmonized rules is, in effect, a barrier to free trade.
In an interview, Jo Cooper, president of the alliance, which includes automakers based in countries around the world, said last year's decision to make the U.S.-based trade association an international group is a factor in favor of progress.
Eliminating nationalism 'helps us move the process forward,' she said.
Wilber agreed that the increasing globalization of the industry both increases pressure for progress to be made and also creates a climate conducive to harmonization.
'It's an unprecedented opportunity,' he said.
Wilber disputed a complaint from safety groups that in harmonizing regulations, governments will pick the lowest common denominator and water down safety standards.
He said car companies are committed to selecting the 'best practices' from among differing regulations. If it were not so, he said, speaking of the safety groups, 'Do you think they would let us get away with that?'