49 USC 30122(b). That’s the “Make Inoperative” provision of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act. It states that, “A manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business may not knowingly make inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter…” Violators of the provision are liable for a civil penalty of up to $6,000 for each violation, with a maximum penalty of $17.35 million. With a “M.”
Having spoken to a number of tire dealer employees, from service managers to CEOs, I often ask them what they are and aren’t allowed to do with regard to TPMS sensors. Far too often I hear some version of what an owner of one large chain of tire stores told me: “The only thing we are not allowed to do is dismantle or disconnect the sensor capability of the car.”
While that has been considered a perfectly reasonable interpretation of the provision in the past, it unfortunately turns out to be nowhere near how NHTSA actually interprets that rule. We know this because two years ago NHTSA responded to a very specific written request from TIA requesting clarification on four commonly encountered TPMS scenarios. For some tire dealers, the answers were sometimes surprising.
For instance, if a customer has an extra set of wheels to be installed and refuses to either purchase another set of TPMS sensors or move the existing OE sensors over to the new wheels, the shop cannot install the wheels.
According to NHTSA, “a service provider would violate the ‘make inoperative’ prohibition of 49 USC 30122(b) by installing new tires and wheels that do not have a functioning TPMS system. To avoid a ‘make inoperative’ violation, the tire dealer would need to decline to install the new tires and wheels, use the TPMS sensors from the original wheels (if they are compatible), or convince the motorist to purchase new TPMS sensors and ensure that the sensors are properly integrated with the vehicle’s TPMS system.”
Roy Littlefield, TIA executive vice president, said, “We are admittedly surprised by NHTSA’s response that aftermarket tires and wheels must include TPMS sensors. Based on the language in the April 2005 Final Rule, we believed that the presence of the malfunction indicator lamp (MIL) would notify the driver that the TPMS was not operable as a result of their decision to decline new sensors…”
The language Littlefield referenced in the NHTSA’s Final Rule says:
“We (NHTSA) do not believe it is appropriate to permit disablement of the MIL when aftermarket tires and wheels are installed on the vehicle that are not compatible with the continued proper functioning of the TPMS. In such cases, the TPMS MIL is performing its intended function. We believe that the MIL should continue to operate when tires and wheels that are incompatible with the TPMS are mounted on the vehicle, not only to discourage such actions, but also to provide an ongoing reminder that the TPMS is unavailable to provide low tire pressure warnings.”
Given that TIA has been going on this assumption for six years now, it’s certainly reasonable to say that this clarification was surprising, and it’s no stretch to see why so many dealers still think that disconnecting the MIL is the only thing they can’t do.
But it turns out that what NHTSA meant to say was this: “Owners can put wheels without sensors on their car, and the MIL should stay on to warn them that the TPMS is nonfunctional. But shops can’t help!”
Complying with the Law
Having worked in a tire shop myself, I will be blunt here. The regulations below about damaged sensors are annoying and mildly burdensome. This one hurts. If you are complying with this regulation, there will always be customers who will avoid paying the cost of four new sensors by going somewhere else. Some will find a shop that doesn’t know about the regulations. Some will find a shop that will mount and balance the tires separately and let them install the set at home. Some will find tire stores that simply don’t care what the rules are.
The only thing I can advise is to remember that the customer is under no legal responsibility to NHTSA or anyone on this issue. You are the only one that can be fined for installing a set of wheels and tires without sensors. They can’t.
If your dealership performs a service and turns over the car to the customer, but the TPMS MIL comes on after the customer has left, the shop has not violated the “make inoperative” provision. According to NHTSA, “The mere illumination of the malfunction indicator lamp after the vehicle has been released by a motor vehicle repair business to the driver would not itself be a violation of the ‘make inoperative’ provision.” By implication, the dealer is responsible for making sure the system is reset and the light is off before the vehicle can be released.
If a customer comes in with an already malfunctioning sensor that cannot be immediately replaced, the shop can temporarily replace it with a snap-in valve stem and return the car to service. According to NHTSA, “a motor vehicle repair business would not be violating 49 USC 30122(b) by removing an inoperative or damaged TPMS sensor and replacing it with a standard snap-in rubber valve stem.”
But on the other hand…If the shop “inadvertently” breaks a TPMS sensor and cannot immediately find a replacement, the shop cannot temporarily replace the TPMS sensor valve stem with a rubber stem and return the car to service. The vehicle must be held until the sensor can be replaced.
NHTSA says, “as a general matter, a violation of the ‘make inoperative’ prohibition does not occur until a repair business allows or intends a vehicle to be returned to use…this would be true regardless of whether arrangements have been made for future repair.” (Emphasis ours)
So if the sensor is already broken when it comes into the shop, or if the battery stopped working last week and the customer doesn’t want to pay for a replacement, or if a replacement is not immediately available, the tire dealer can legally put in a rubber valve stem and release the car.
If a tire tech breaks one, it must be replaced or the car can’t be given back. This can lead to some unfortunate customer service outcomes if not handled properly.
Therefore it is critical that you verify that the TPMS system and all sensors are working properly and document that fact before you do anything else to the tires or wheels. You need to know whether everything is working to know how to properly comply with the law – and you will need to be able to prove that you did so.
Impact of Corrosion
TIA senior vice president of training Kevin Rohlwing said at the time, “This is exactly why our training programs have always stressed the importance of checking the status of the TPMS prior to service. If a valve stem sensor is not functioning prior to servicing the tires and wheels, then the retailer cannot violate the ‘make inoperative’ provision because the system was already inoperative.”
This process is certainly made much easier by the new generation of sensor scan tools that can save and print the required documentation of sensor status. Most new scan tools allow for data updates via PC, hopefully making them the last scan tool you will ever have to buy.
Since the TPMS system must be reset before the car is released, and many systems still require a direct OBDII interface for a sensor reset; that capability is a necessity for any tech that does not already have it. Several of the better scan tools also include an OBDII interface for an all-in-one solution that makes dealing with the wide variety of reset procedures less of a headache.
There is also, as Rohlwing put it, “some debate over the circumstances related to inadvertent damage.” This turn of phrase neatly describes the dimensions of the elephant in the room – corrosion.
Here are my own open questions for NHTSA: What if a one-piece TPMS valve stem becomes corroded beyond repair, and the installer cannot remove the sensor for service without breaking the stem or destroying the threads, requiring replacement of the sensor? Does that constitute “inadvertent breakage” or is it “removing an inoperative or damaged” sensor?
I would argue that there can be little doubt that corrosion is damage that has occurred before the vehicle arrived in the shop. I would argue that if a sensor cannot reasonably be removed without causing critical damage, it should be considered “inoperative” even if the transmitter still works.
I would argue that if the effect of a universally known corrosion problem in TPMS sensors causes a sensor stem to break, this can hardly be considered “inadvertent damage” on the shop’s part.
There is real inadvertent damage, of course. It seems like every tire tech should know by now not to put the mounting shovel next to the valve stem, but there’s always that one daydreamer who does it anyway and snaps off a sensor. In that case, I can see holding the shop responsible for making sure the sensor gets replaced. I suspect that most shops simply replace it for free anyway, just for the customer relationship win.
But I think there are still some issues that could be further clarified here, and I suspect a lot of shops would really like to hear what NHTSA has to say about corrosion-related damage.
What say you, TIA? Time for another letter?