TROY, MICH. — Automotive parts suppliers that turn out bigger and more-complex systems are facing bigger liability risks and more demands for rigorous testing. Tier 1 suppliers are deciding if they are willing — and able — to take on that kind of role.
"There are major liabilities related to safety issues," said Craig Winn, president of Troy, Mich.-based SteyrSymatec North America, a subsidiary of Magna International Inc.
"As we suppliers pick up bigger responsibilities, we have to make sure we're funded to handle the liabilities. A $1 billion court-ordered settlement will wipe out my little company," he said during the Plastics in Automotive Safety Conference, held Feb. 7 in Troy and sponsored by the Society of Plastics Engineers.
Representatives from 10 different operations, ranging from government agencies to automakers and Tier 2 suppliers, took part in a panel discussion dealing with challenges in safety.
Automakers expect suppliers to share legal and regulatory burdens for the parts they produce, said Robert C. Lange, Detroit-based General Motors Corp.'s engineering director for vehicle development in North America.
"When we look to purchase components, we anticipate a concomitant and appropriate sharing of the risk," he said.
That only makes sense, according to Helen O. Petrauskas, vice president of environmental and safety engineering for Ford Motor Co. of Dearborn, Mich.
"If the product is damaged, we both lose a customer," she said.
Key plastics suppliers already turn out dashboard systems, seats, front-end modules and bumper systems, door panels and headliners. Carmakers soon could add more elements to those pieces, such as providing a headliner with a built-in curtain-air-bag system.
"As we become more active [in modules], this will shift in our direction," said Ashford A. Galbreath, vice president of advanced engineering and validation for Lear Corp.
Southfield, Mich.-based Lear just opened its own testing unit last year, with crash-dummy calibrations, a head-impact lab, a side-impact crash sled and an air-bag-deployment lab.
Suppliers also must air their opinions in the nation's capital, said Bill Walsh, director of the Office of International Policy and Harmonization for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"The [original equipment manufacturers] are becoming assemblers of what you produce. You have to get more involved in Washington. You have to figure out how much you're going to get involved in the process."
Such involvement increasingly requires not only understanding and complying with safety regulations in the United States, but also in Europe and Asia.
Carmakers are involved worldwide, but safety standards themselves are not standard from continent to continent — despite continuing coordination talks.
In the United States, for example, automakers must test how air bags will work even when people are not wearing seat belts, Lange noted. In Europe, all air-bag tests require examples of belted individuals.
"It's going to be a very, very slow process," said Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute, based in Arlington, Va.
European and American officials can't even agree on what type of dummy to use in crash tests involving side impacts, he said.
"Every time I ask them how long it's going to take, I'm told it's years and years in the future," he said. "Until we can agree on the measuring tool, how do we even agree on how to do side-impact testing?"
And those differing standards just complicate issues for suppliers, said Lawrence A. Denton, president of Dow Automotive, a Southfield-based division of Dow Chemical Co.
"It's a burden for the supplier when we must be able to make compounds based on where the OEM is located," Denton said.
"There's a lot of redundant testing we have to do," agreed Steven R. Fredin, director of restraint-systems engineering for Autoliv North America of Auburn Hills, Mich., which turns out air bags, seat belts and sensors.
"It ends up costing us a lot of time and money, and it costs our customers."