WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- Tesla Motors Inc. may lose an exemption that has allowed it to sell a $109,000 electric roadster with air bags that don’t meet U.S. safety standards.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration may stop giving waivers to an 11-year-old regulation that cars sold in the U.S. have so-called advanced air bags, it said yesterday in a Federal Register notice. The air bags have sensors that adjust force to occupants’ heights and weights.
Tesla, Lamborghini and other limited-production automakers have won exemptions over the past five years on financial-hardship grounds.
“The people who are bringing these vehicles in and are buying them should be made aware” that they have air bags that fall short of U.S. safety requirements, said Jeffrey Runge, a former NHTSA administrator who is president of Biologue Inc., which consults on transportation safety.
Tesla has sold about 1,700 Roadsters worldwide. Roadster production, for which the company is seeking another waiver, is scheduled to end this year, said Khobi Brooklyn, a spokeswoman for Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla. By mid-2012, the company plans to begin selling Model S sedans, which will comply with the air-bag rules, Brooklyn said.
Group Lotus Plc, the British sports-car maker, said this week it’s ending production for North America of its Elise and Exige models due in part to the air bag requirement, according to Edmunds.com.
Companies ranging from Ferrari SpA, controlled by Fiat SpA, to Wheego Electric Cars Inc., which makes two-seat electric LiFe cars, have also received waivers.
Expense not enough
“NHTSA tentatively concludes that the expense of advanced air bag technology is not now sufficient, in and of itself, to justify the grant of a petition for a hardship exemption from the advanced air bag requirements,” the agency said in response to requests by Lotus, a unit of Proton Holdings Bhd., Malaysia’s state-controlled carmaker, and Tesla to renew their exemptions.
Lamborghini’s last exemption expired in February and Ferrari’s ended in August 2009.
Wheego, which sold its first LiFe on April 22, has sold 24 and has about 300 ordered, said Les Seagraves, vice president for product development and legal counsel for the Atlanta-based company. The cars sell for a starting price of $33,000 and have standard driver’s and passenger-side air bags. The company expects the four-door plug-in model it’s developing to have advanced air bags, Seagraves said.
“We had been working on this vehicle for about three years and in order to put the advanced air bags in the car, it would have cost us another million and a half dollars and another 18 months of development,” Seagraves said. “We’re a tiny startup company. That would have pretty much put us out of business.”
NHTSA began requiring advanced air bags in model-year 2004 cars and trucks sold in the U.S., allowing exceptions to keep using standard air bags for manufacturers producing fewer than 10,000 vehicles in a year. About 10 companies have received the waivers, said Karen Aldana, a spokeswoman for the auto-safety regulator.
Panoz Auto Development Co., based in Hoschton, Georgia, estimated in a 2006 filing with NHTSA that including advanced air bags in its custom sports cars would add about $6,129 to the cost of each vehicle.
Lamborghini, a unit of Volkswagen AG, had a waiver for its Murcielago model, of which the company produced 4,099 worldwide from 2001 to May 2010, according to a November press release.
“The potential end to these exemptions will not affect Lamborghini as our current product offerings -- the Aventador and Gallardo models -- currently meet federal air bag requirements,” said Raffaello Porro, a spokesman for Lamborghini, based in Sant’Agata Bolognese, Italy. The company declined to comment on the cost difference between the two types of air bags.
Lamborghini said in a 2009 filing with NHTSA that it expected to spend $15 million to comply with the air bag requirement for future models.
Matteo Sardi, a spokesman for Ferrari, based in Modena, Italy, didn’t respond to e-mails seeking comment. Kevin Smith, a U.S.-based spokesman for Lotus, didn’t respond to an e-mail and phone call.