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Changes sought for ride height laws

Tipping point: The Australian Automotive Aftermarket Association claims small changes to a vehicle’s ride height are unlikely to undermine electronic stability control settings.

Aftermarket group stakes $300,000 on bid to overturn ESC restrictions

26 May 2014

AUSTRALIA’S electronic stability control mandate for all new passenger cars is effectively a ban on modifying cars, the peak body for aftermarket suspension makers claims.

The Australian Automotive Aftermarket Association (AAAA) says it is so confident that altering ride height will not hurt the potentially life-saving electronic stability control (ESC) settings – which can help a car recover from an uncontrolled skid – that it will spend $300,000 to send modified cars to the US and have the ESC settings tested.

According to the AAAA, government agencies are reluctant to approve minor modifications such as raising or lowering a vehicle’s suspension because they have been told they can’t be sure even if minor modifications will not interfere with the proper working of the ESC system.

It says it is certain that minor modifications will have no effect and has offered to strike a deal with the Australian Motor Vehicle Certification Working Board.

The AAAA has proposed to pay for the testing of six modified vehicles from Australia by an established testing organisation in the US that does homologation work on ESC systems for several US car manufacturers.

If the tests show no ill-effects on the working of the ESC systems, the AAAA wants the regulators to implement a nationally approved self certification process for minor modifications.

Shipping the cars to the US and having them tested will cost the local aftermarket suspension industry and the AAAA more than $300,000.

The AAAA brought a senior executive from the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) from the US to present a case study to the March meeting of the AMVCWB.

The AAAA has been promised a response before the end of this month.

“We are very confident minor modifications like altering the ride height by five centimetres will have no impact on the performance of ESC systems,” AAAA senior manager of government relations Ben Bartlett said.

“We are prepared to do the testing, we are prepared to prove it. But, in return, we are asking that regulators then remove the requirement for any additional testing for minor-modified vehicles and any products that have been replaced.”

He said Australia was the only market in the world where vehicles with minor modifications were refused registration simply because ESC was fitted as standard equipment.

Mr Bartlett said the official stance was that modifications would not be approved unless the manufacturer said the modifications were OK or the modified vehicle had been tested.

But he said no Australian government would say what test had to be passed to check that the modifications do not interfere with the ESC.

Not even taking a modified car to a licenced automotive engineer would prove acceptable to road authorities, he said.

“An auto engineer will do things like a high-speed lane change test, which is commonly done to check the stability in general, but it doesn’t necessarily check the intervention points of the ESC.

“The authorities have told us that wouldn’t be acceptable, that wouldn’t be enough.”

Mr Bartlett said the situation stemmed from advice that road authorities received about five years ago when ESC systems were still very new.

“They were given presentations by a couple of sources they thought were experts. They wanted to know what happened when you modified a vehicle that had ESC as standard.

“They wanted a black and white answer and they couldn’t get it. So they said they are not going to approve any modifications unless the owner has the express permission of the manufacturer or has had suitable testing done.”

Mr Bartlett said the AAAA had focused on suspension modifications because that was the most visible change that owners made.

“People changing tyres: strictly it should have the same effect, but the regulators don’t ever inspect a vehicle just because it’s had its tyres changed.” Mr Bartlett said the focus on ESC systems created the anomaly where someone could buy a used Toyota LandCruiser off-roader with no ESC, raise it 5cm and not have to have the vehicle inspected.

But if a LandCruiser fitted with ESC was given the same suspension, it would have to be inspected and subjected to a test that no road authority would specify.

The plan is to send six cars sold in Australia and with minor suspension modifications (up to a 5cm alteration in ride height) over to the US to be tested under SEMA’s Vehicle Dynamics Program.

The SEMA program is run in association with Link Engineering, which tests ESC settings for US car-makers.

Testing has shown that ESC systems still works as designed even when vehicles are raised by as much as 15cm, three times the height for which the AAAA is seeking approval.

“To date, test results in North America have shown clearly that minor modifications have no adverse impact on the operation of the ESC unit.,” Mr Bartlett said.

“In fact, in the USA, vehicles have been raised up to 150mm without any safety concerns, which is well in excess of the AAAA requests to local authorities.”

Mr Bartlett said the AAAA had encountered some state authorities with very little understanding of ESC systems.

“One of the state regulators said to us: ‘What if the ESC system doesn’t know whether it’s Arthur or Martha and it’s going to start doing things it shouldn’t and stopping the vehicle when it shouldn’t. It could just go into meltdown’,” Mr Bartlett said.

“This was a vehicle engineer telling us what we can and can’t do.

“Bosch and others in the US have told us it doesn’t happen. The ESC may intervene earlier or later than expected, although that’s very unlikely, but it’s not going to suddenly, in the middle of the road, turn off or stop the vehicle.”

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