DETROIT - Auto suppliers that turn out bigger and more complex systems are facing bigger liability risks and more demands for rigorous testing.
Tier 1 suppliers are deciding if they are willing and able to take on that kind of role.
'There are major liabilities related to safety issues,' said Craig Winn, president of SteyrSymatec North America, a Troy, Mich., subsidiary of Magna International Inc.
'As we suppliers pick up bigger responsibilities, we have to make sure we're funded to handle the liabilities. A $1 billion court-ordered settlement will wipe out my little company,' he said during the Plastics in Automotive Safety Conference this month in Troy.
At the conference, which was sponsored by the Society of Plastics Engineers, representatives from 10 organizations, including government agencies, automakers and suppliers, took part in a panel discussion dealing with challenges in safety.
SHARE THE RISKS
Automakers expect suppliers to share legal and regulatory burdens for the parts they produce, said Robert Lange, General Motors' engineering director for vehicle development in North America.
'When we look to purchase components, we anticipate a concomitant and appropriate sharing of the risk,' he said.
That only makes sense, according to Helen Petrauskas, vice president of environmental and safety engineering for Ford Motor Co. of Dearborn, Mich. 'If the product is damaged, we both lose a customer,' she said.
Key plastics suppliers already turn out dashboard systems, seats, front-end modules, bumper systems, door panels and headliners. Carmakers soon could add more elements to those pieces, such as providing a headliner with a built-in curtain-airbag system.
'As we become more active (in modules), this will shift in our direction,' said Ashford Galbreath, vice president of advanced engineering and validation for Lear Corp. of Southfield, Mich.
Lear just opened its own testing unit last year, with crash-dummy calibrations, a head-impact lab, a side-impact crash sled and an airbag-deployment lab.
GO TO WASHINGTON
Suppliers also must air their opinions in the nation's capital, said Bill Walsh, director of the Office of International Policy and Harmonization for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
'The (original equipment manufacturers) are becoming assemblers of what you produce,' he said. 'You have to get more involved in Washington. You have to figure out how much you're going to get involved in the process.'
Such involvement increasingly requires not only understanding and complying with safety regulations in the United States but also in Europe and Asia.
Carmakers are involved worldwide, but safety standards themselves are not standard from continent to continent, despite continuing coordination talks.
In the United States, for example, automakers must test how airbags will work even when people are not wearing seat belts, Lange noted. In Europe, all airbag tests require examples of belted individuals.
'It's going to be a very, very slow process,' said Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute of Arlington, Va.
European and American officials can't even agree on what type of dummy to use in crash tests involving side impacts, he said.
'Every time I ask them how long it's going to take, I'm told it's years and years in the future,' he said. 'Until we can agree on the measuring tool, how do we even agree on how to do side-impact testing?'
Those differing standards just complicate issues for suppliers, said Lawrence Denton, president of Dow Automotive, a Southfield, Mich. division of Dow Chemical Co.
'It's a burden for the supplier when we must be able to make compounds based on where the OEM is located,' Denton said.
'There's a lot of redundant testing we have to do,' agreed Steven Fredin, director of restraint-systems engineering for Autoliv North America of Auburn Hills, Mich., which turns out airbags, seat belts and sensors.
'It ends up costing us a lot of time and money, and it costs our customers.'