Earlier this month the US Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard #226 came into effect. However the change in the rule was actually announced 6 years ago with a phased introduction starting in 2013.
This new regulation is a response to concerns about side impact safety in vehicles. It increases the size of the airbags fitted to protect occupants from an impact that could come from a classic road accident where a car has entered a junction whilst another runs a red light. Increasing the size means that the bag covers more of the window aperture which hopefully would prevent debris from reaching the occupants. In addition, the regulation also lengthens the time the airbag stays inflated, which is designed to absorb more after effects of the impact.
Whilst there has been quite a lot of media attention around airbags since Takata announced their recall (and subsequent sale of the business), this safety device is still one of the best units for occupant protection in the majority of accidents.
What most people don’t consider, is the amount of work that is required to make these changes for a vehicle currently in production. An example of this was announced recently when FIAT Chrysler released a media notice saying that one of their plants in Ontario would shut for 5 weeks starting in October to facilitate the changes to the production equipment. This will affect over 4,000 workers.
Apparently the Dodge Grand Caravan (for the US market) didn’t conform to regulation #226. Other Dodge and Chrysler minivans are OK and can still be sold, however the lines for the bigger vehicle need to be retooled to accommodate the new airbags. Dodge said that it had 19 days of stock of the vehicle within the dealer network and you would think they would also need to have the new airbags fitted unless there was an agreement that all previously assembled vehicles are exempt.
The dealer network was told in June to stock up on 2017 models because production would be temporarily stopped – a good way to bring in some cash early! When the facility comes back on stream it will be building 2018 models and so it is a fair assumption that the retooling will also include some new equipment for a refresh.
I have always been fascinated by the processes and logistical way that a car is built – there are so many components to be fitted together in a particular order, and when you hear about a change like this, it reminds you of the impact manufacturing has on communities across the world. If you are paid on an hourly rate, 5 weeks of no work could cause some hardship.
Finally, remember that 5 weeks of production downtime is after the designers have worked on the internal trim and the testing team have checked how that trim moves when the airbag is activated. The last thing FIAT Chrysler wants is an occupant badly hurt or killed by the airbag or trim causing the injuries during the accident.