Fear of the unknown.
It is the emotion many in the automobile industry have about the federal safety law that was enacted in the wake of last year's upheaval over Firestone tires that failed and sport-utilities that rolled over.
The fear is especially acute among automotive suppliers.
They can't be sure, but many believe they and their personnel could face:
Increased costs for keeping records and filing documents with the federal government.
The threat of high fines and even criminal charges if they don't comply.
Loss of proprietary information to competitors.
Strained relations with customers, either higher-tier suppliers or lower-tiers, or both.
The potential for more lawsuits by consumers seeking damages.
A senior U.S. executive of a top 100 global supplier said he doesn't even want his name in print expressing doubts about the law. He can envision being on the witness stand and having to answer in court for his reservations.
'This is a hot potato,' the executive said. 'We are all afraid of the unknown, and there is a lot of unknown here.'
Fill in the blanks
The main reason for the uncertainty is this: The law passed by Congress and signed in November by then-President Bill Clinton - commonly known as the TREAD Act - is more a statement of intent than a precise description of the new duties and obligations for makers of vehicles and their parts.
The job of filling in the details rests with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and even officials there admit they're unsure how to proceed.
They note that only a small percentage of the estimated 14,000 parts in a modern motor vehicle have a direct impact on safety.
But the officials also wrote in a notice about their plans for regulations that would fill in the details:
'On the other hand, if the manufacturer of a relatively insignificant part such as a fastener or bolt becomes aware that it has produced a defective part, that information ought to be reported to us so that we can decide whether to open a defect investigation with respect to the vehicles in which that part has been used.'
Neil De Koker, managing director of the Original Equipment Suppliers Association, an organization of Tier 1, 2 and 3 suppliers, said the notice 'makes it sound like they are considering anything and everything.'
Daniel Malone, a shareholder in the Detroit law firm of Butzel Long, which has suppliers among its clients, said he expects the law to affect 'most if not all component manufacturers to some degree or another.'
Traditionally, the reporting information to regulators 'has been the role of the OEM as the integrator of the components,' De Koker said. But the law also appears to put the burden on suppliers, undermining traditional relationships in the industry.
'Until those kinds of things are settled, there is a lot of uncertainty,' he said.
NHTSA published its notice in January, alerting the industry that it must write rules on details of an early-warning system - just one part of the new safety law.
The point of the system, as far as Congress is concerned, is to give NHTSA the authority to gather records from parts and tire makers, and automobile manufacturers that could signal early defective vehicles on the road - before deaths and injuries occur.
In the Firestone case, congressional committees gathered evidence indicating that Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and perhaps Ford Motor Co. had internal records dating at least to the mid-1990s that suggested a pattern of tire failures.
But a recall of 6.5 million tires did not begin until August 2000, after the deaths and injuries had started to mount.
Time to comment
NHTSA is accepting comments until March 23 on what parts and which suppliers should be covered by the early-warning reporting requirements.
Then it will write the rules that Congress says must be adopted by mid-2002.
The Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association, which is the parent organization of the Original Equipment Suppliers Association, is collecting the concerns of its members so it can file joint comments with NHTSA.
Larry Henneberger, a partner in the Washington firm of Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn, legal counsel to the parent group, said the companies' officials have every right to be concerned.
While he believes NHTSA will try to do the right thing, he said he's concerned that the rules include adequate safeguards for records, especially those that allege injury and death. He said members of 'the auto safety bar' routinely check the NHTSA files for leads on lawsuits they might file.
Henneberger said he doesn't want to minimize the tragedies that occurred in the Firestone case but believes the new law is 'perhaps an overreaction by Congress.'
De Koker said tires were the only component whose warranty claims were not reported to suppliers. Now the automakers are requiring those reports from tire companies.
And yet the new law will likely require makers of all kinds of parts to send warranty information to NHTSA.
He said there is little hope of getting Congress to revise the law soon because the atmosphere from last year's debate was 'too emotionally charged.'
The specter of criminal penalties is what has shaken the industry the most since Congress began debating new legislation last fall.
Edward Kronk, another shareholder at Butzel Long, said the final version does contain a high threshold - an offender would have to knowingly and willfully try to mislead federal officials about defective products.
But the provision remains on the books, saying company executives or employees could go to jail for as long as 15 years.
The supplier executive who asked not to be named questioned why such a law exists only for the automobile industry and not for makers of all kinds of products.
Answering his own question, he said: 'It was an election year. It's so easy to pick on the automobile industry.'