WASHINGTON, D.C. — The federal government may ban sales of Ferrari's bread-and-butter F430 in late 2006 unless the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration grants the company a waiver on airbag requirements.
It isn't that the F430's airbags aren't safe — they meet or exceed most NHTSA guidelines. But the F430 lacks sufficient protection for a small number of female occupants who aren't strapped into the correct position in the event of a crash. The same problem applies to child occupants. If the waiver isn't granted, Ferrari will be unable to sell cars built after September 1, 2006.
NHTSA suggested the company accelerate production and stockpile pre-September 1 cars to keep dealers supplied with cars for the two remaining years in the F430's production cycle, but Ferrari pointed out that it is already building the cars as quickly as it can to meet demand.
In its petition, Ferrari details its plans to continue the F430 line until late 2008, when it will "be replaced by a newly designed eight-cylinder model." What that means for rumors of a possible 10-cylinder Lamborghini Gallardo fighter isn't clear.
Lotus initially expected it would need a similar waiver to sell the Elise in the U.S., but ultimately found it could meet the requirement with off-the-shelf airbag technology. Ferrari, on the other hand, says in its petition that it has extensively tested available components without success. "The issue is not one of cost, but one of impossibility," the document states. (Emphasis added by Ferrari in its filing.)
"We focused on the work that had been done in an attempt to comply," observed Ferrari North American Corporate General Council Dave Wertheim. "We think there is a very high degree of safety in the car," he emphasized.
When the wheels of the federal bureaucracy will churn out a decision is anybody's guess. "There is no expected timetable," said Wertheim. What do Ferrari's oddsmakers think it'll decide? "We're cautiously optimistic," he said.
Waivers have typically been considered the realm of tiny startups and importers of limited numbers of unusual cars. Even though Lotus complied with the airbag requirement, the Elise still required waivers for other elements, such as lighting. The Crosslander SUV under consideration from Romania, for example, will require a waiver for its complete absence of any airbags, which is a much taller order than Ferrari's request.
Ferrari points out that only 13 percent of its owners have children under the age of 6, so that it is unlikely that many kids will ride in one of the waived cars. Further, the company pledges to provide, free of charge to any customer who requests it, a special child seat which will automatically deactivate the passenger's side airbag. The cars will also feature a manual cutoff switch for the passenger's side airbag.
If the notion of buying a Ferrari child seat sounds attractive, hold on. At this point that child seat is entirely hypothetical, says Wertheim, and even then it would only be available to those who own the car.
What this means to you: It's an interesting look at all the legal wrangling automakers must go through to sell cars in this country. But it does beg the question as to why Ferrari let this coming regulatory deadline approach without making the necessary improvements.