Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

How to make life easier for car thieves

Jerry Stratton, April 16, 2015

Reagan For the Little Guy

This is how over-regulation blocks and retards technological advancement: the Code of Federal Regulations Title 49, Subtitle B, Chapter V, Part 541:

The purpose of this standard is to reduce the incidence of motor vehicle thefts by facilitating the tracing and recovery of parts from stolen vehicles.

How does it do this? By requiring that about eighteen parts that are normally interchangeable and thus candidates for stripping be labeled or inscribed with an identifying mark, usually or always the VIN or some subset thereof. Now, as a consumer, you might be thinking, that doesn’t really reduce theft, it just makes tracking the stripped parts easier, which doesn’t really help get your car back in one piece. And as an automotive engineer, you might be thinking, individually stamp that many interchangeable parts? The main purpose of interchangeable parts is to reduce the cost of the vehicle by making them exactly the same and easily reproduced on an assembly line.

Ah, but you would be thinking like an engineer, not a politician or government regulator. It’s only one change, how much more expensive can it be? To which the engineer rolls their eyes and thinks, sure, it turns standard parts into custom parts. But the politician gets their way, and now the automotive industry has to lobby them with money and support to get exemptions from the new rule.

Thus, the Code of Federal Regulations Title 49, Subtitle B, Chapter V, Part 543, “Exemption from Vehicle Theft Prevention Standard”.

The purpose of this part is to specify the content and format of petitions which may be filed by manufacturers of passenger motor vehicles to obtain an exemption from the parts-marking requirements of the vehicle theft prevention standard for passenger motor vehicle lines which include, as standard equipment, an antitheft device if the agency concludes that the device is likely to be as effective in reducing and deterring motor vehicle theft as compliance with the parts-marking requirements. This part also provides the procedures that the agency will follow in processing those petitions and in terminating or modifying exemptions.

Each year, a manufacturer can petition for an exemption of one car line from the requirements of 49 CFR 541. This keeps the car companies involved in the legislative process (read: keeps them donating money to congressional campaigns). On the plus side, you might think, the way to get an exemption is to install an anti-theft device as standard equipment on the model line to be exempted, so that has to be good for car buyers.1

Of course, you can’t, as a manufacturer, just install anti-theft devices on a line and have that line be exempted. The anti-theft devices must be approved by the NHTSA. Recently, for example, Mercedes Benz successfully requested an exemption “of the smart Line Chassis vehicle line”

Nothing particularly wrong with that. Got to keep Mercedes-Benz from installing fake anti-theft devices. What happens, though, if Mercedes-Benz engineers realize they need to modify the anti-theft device to make it more effective or fix a bug? Mercedes Benz needs to hire not just lobbyists to lobby congress, but bureaucracy navigators to navigate the NHTSA:

NHTSA notes that if MBUSA wishes in the future to modify the device on which this exemption is based, the company may have to submit a petition to modify the exemption. Part 543.7(d) states that a Part 543 exemption applies only to vehicles that belong to a line exempted under this part and equipped with the antitheft device on which the line's exemption is based. Further, Part 543.9(c)(2) provides for the submission of petitions “to modify an exemption to permit the use of an antitheft device similar to but differing from the one specified in that exemption.”

The agency wishes to minimize the administrative burden that Part 543.9(c)(2) could place on exempted vehicle manufacturers and itself. The agency did not intend in drafting Part 543 to require the submission of a modification petition for every change to the components or design of an antitheft device. The significance of many such changes could be de minimis. Therefore, NHTSA suggests that if the manufacturer contemplates making any changes, the effects of which might be characterized as de minimis, it should consult the agency before preparing and submitting a petition to modify.

I expect that some companies just decide, what the hell, we don’t really need to fix that bug, or they decide not to go into business at all. Others, of course, move closer and closer to the bureaucracy event horizon.

Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status. — Laurence J. Peter (Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time)

In response to Zeno’s motorcar: Automobiles are awesome machines. But sometimes it seems as though they’re stuck twenty years in the past.

  1. You might also think, hey, if the anti-theft device works, why not let them install it on two lines next year, four lines the year after that, until their entire line is covered by anti-theft devices rather than after-theft tracking? See: congressional donations.

  1. <- Star Trek Vegas