Automakers' plans for meeting federally mandated installation of tire pressure monitoring systems were scrambled last week by a New York appeals court ruling that would prohibit the use of the cheaper technology they had favored.
The decision comes just three months before a federal deadline makes tire pressure monitoring systems mandatory. That leaves little time for automakers who had been planning to meet the standard with so-called indirect technology to implement a production change.
The auto industry is expected to appeal the ruling.
The tire pressure sensing rule, adopted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in June 2002, grew out of the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire controversy of two years ago. Under the rule, automakers could install one of two systems:
1. An indirect system, which uses the vehicle's antilock brake sensors to monitor wheel rotation speed. As a tire loses pressure, the wheel spins faster and triggers a warning light on the instrument panel.
2. A more costly direct system, which uses sensors inside the tire or on the valve stem to measure air pressure. A readout inside the vehicle tells the driver the pressure in each tire.
Some vehicles, most of them luxury models, already have the direct system. Among them are the Chevrolet Corvette and Cadillac XLR.
Automakers expressed disappointment and uncertainty.
"Right now we are probably just going to take a look at what it means," said Ellen Dickson, Ford public affairs manager. She said no production plans had changed, but the automaker has not had enough time to decide if there would be any content changes in 2004 models.
"It's very disappointing," said Chris Tinto, director of regulatory affairs for Toyota Motor Corp. North America. "A lot of product plans were decided on our ability to use either system in our models. All those product plans are in jeopardy and have to be reconsidered. The net result is there is no rule now."
General Motors had a plan to meet the requirements of the old rule, spokesman Chris Preuss said. "It's going to end up costing the consumer, like all regulatory changes eventually do," he said.
Auto safety activist Clarence Ditlow expressed delight at the appeals court ruling.
"Direct tire pressure monitoring systems are more accurate and will prevent 50 percent more deaths and injuries than indirect systems," said Ditlow, who is executive director of the Center for Automotive Safety. The center was one of three consumer safety groups that sued the government to throw out the original rule.
Supplier Siemens VDO Automotive, which produces direct monitoring systems, said it was prepared to boost production.
Said spokesman David Ladd: "This is good news for suppliers of direct monitoring systems, not so good for suppliers of the indirect approach."