The USA’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has granted Lotus a 12 month exemption to the requirements for ‘smart airbag’ system regulations for their only USA product, the Evora. Under the regulations (FMVSS No. 208) the airbag system must be able to detect if the occupant of the front passenger seat has their seat belt buckled or unbuckled, allowing it to vary the force imparted to the airbag inflation in stages. The regulation now includes higher levels of validation with a 5th percentile female crash test dummy as well as 50th percentile male crash test dummy in a 35mph rigid barrier belted test.
Lotus applied for a 28 month exemption citing financial hardship as the company is currently not profitable due to low volumes of car sales and high costs imparted under previous management. Lotus state that to change the seat belt buckles and airbag ECU would cost over $4m including revalidating the car for type approval and without the exemption, Lotus would no longer have any vehicles available to the US market since the Elise was withdrawn under similar airbag requirements not being met. Lotus petitioned that due to the economic hardship, low volume of sales in the USA, low mileage due to most owners having the Evora as a 2nd car and that they had tried in good faith to find an alternative solution, that the exemption be granted.
This was countered by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety who commented that Lotus should have access to advanced airbag technology, that their good faith efforts were unacceptable and that they were short-sighted in their need to comply with current regulatory requirements. They also argued that Lotus stated that without the exemption, they would merely make a smaller profit (Lotus predicted a $24 million profit with the exemption, $13 million without) and that the regulations are a minimum level therefore occupants are not even afforded the minimum required protection.
The NHTSA took all these points on board and their decision was to grant the exception for 12 months, expiring in March 2014 rather than the 28 months as requested. Lotus in the meantime must look at alternative solutions which do not require the expense of revalidation or bring forward the updating of the airbag ECU to comply with with the regulations. Either way, it’s good news for the company and US customers who can continue to enjoy the Evora and a presence in the United States of Lotus Cars and future compliance with safety regulations.