Jock Marlo, Esq.
Hart, King & Coldren
P.O. Box 2507
Santa Ana, CA 92707
Dear Mr. Marlo:
This responds to your request for an interpretation concerning National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) requirements that your clients product, the "Smart Shift," must meet. The "Smart Shift" permits drivers to shift gears by a push button system, replacing transmission shift gear levers.
You described the "Smart Shift" as follows:
The Smart Shift is an automotive aftermarket product. It is sold to vehicle owners for installation by the vehicle owner or his designee. The Smart Shift is an electronically controlled shifter that attaches to an automatic transmission which allows the user to shift the transmission gears by the touch of a button, thereby eliminating the transmission gear selector rod or cable. It features a neutral safety device, a built in reverse light relay, a safety button to prevent accidental shifts, and back lit buttons and LCD display for positive gear selection.
You also provided a copy of the "Smart Shift Preliminary Users Manual." The manual shows, on page 5, a schematic of the "Smart Shift" system that includes the shift position keyboard. From left to right, in a row, the buttons are: "P," "R," "N." Slightly above this row is a button, "D+." Slightly below the row is a button, "D-." I will assume that "P" stands for "park," "R" for "reverse," "N" for "neutral," "D+" for a higher drive and "D-" for a lower drive. The schematic also includes a "Display" which you explained in your letter displays the "positive gear selection."
By way of background information, NHTSA is authorized to issue the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSSs) for new motor vehicles and new items of motor
vehicle equipment. NHTSA does not provide approvals of motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment. Instead, manufacturers are required to certify that their vehicles and equipment meet applicable standards.
NHTSA has issued FMVSS No. 102, Transmission shift lever sequence, starter interlock, and transmission braking effect, which specifies requirements for the transmission shift lever sequence, a starter interlock, and for a braking effect of automatic transmissions, to reduce the likelihood of shifting errors, starter engagement with vehicle in drive position, and to provide supplemental braking at speeds below 40 kilometers per hour. FMVSS No. 102 applies to passenger cars, multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks, and buses.
Among FMVSS 102s provisions are the following:
- a neutral position must be located between forward drive and reverse drive positions (see S3.1.1);
- the engine starter must be inoperative when the transmission shifting device is in a forward or reverse drive position (see 3.1.3);
- for a transmission shift sequence that includes a park position, identification of the shift positions, including the positions in relation to each other and the position selected, must be displayed in view of the driver whenever any of the following conditions exist: (a) the ignition is in a position where the transmission can be shifted; (b) the transmission is not in park (see S188.8.131.52); and
- the information required to be displayed by S184.108.40.206 must be displayed in view of the driver in a single location (see S220.127.116.11).
Although the standard makes references to "transmission shift levers," no provision in FMVSS No. 102 would preclude a device that allows the user to shift the transmission gears by the touch of a button.
Since FMVSS No. 102 applies to motor vehicles, not to aftermarket automatic transmission shifting devices, your client would not be required to certify compliance with FMVSS No. 102. However, if the "Smart Shift" is installed by certain parties, 49 U.S.C. Section 30122 would be relevant. Section 30122 provides 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.
Section 30122 would prohibit any of the above-named commercial entities from installing a "Smart Shift" if such installation makes inoperative the compliance of the vehicle with any applicable safety standard, including FMVSS No. 102. For example, if the "Smart Shift" caused the vehicle to no longer comply with any of the requirements noted under the bullets above, installation of the system would make inoperative compliance of the vehicle with that standard.
You also write that your clients product may be installed by vehicle owners. In this situation, our safety standards would not affect the sale or installation of the product. The "make inoperative" provision does not prohibit owners from modifying their vehicles, even if the modification adversely affects the compliance of the vehicle with the FMVSSs. However, we encourage all persons to avoid making vehicle modifications that have an adverse effect on safety.
Beyond compliance with relevant Federal safety standards, manufacturers of motor vehicle equipment have additional responsibilities, including a requirement to notify purchasers about safety-related defects and to provide a remedy free of charge, even if their equipment is not covered by a safety standard. 49 U.S.C. 30118-30120.
In addition, you should be aware that other governmental entities may have authority over your product. For example, the States have the authority to regulate the use and licensing of vehicles operating within their jurisdictions. Therefore, you may wish to check with the Department of Motor Vehicles in any State in which the equipment will be sold or used regarding any such requirements.
I have enclosed a fact sheet titled "Information for New Manufacturers of Motor Vehicles and Motor Vehicle Equipment." I hope this information is helpful. If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact Dorothy Nakama of my staff at this address or by telephone at (202) 366-2992.