Automaker Whistleblower Protection Act Rewards Do-gooders, But There's A Catch

Buried deep within the recently passed highway transportation funding act is a provision to incentivize whistleblowers to speak out against automakers who design serious safety flaws in the cars that they make.

The Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act, passed in Congress earlier this year and signed into law by President Barack Obama this month as part of a larger highway transportation funding bill, is the first federal attempt at preventing catastrophic defects such as the ignition switch installed into General Motors cars that killed 124 people. This year, General Motors settled with victims and families for more than $600 million and paid federal regulators more than $900 million in fines.

The bill’s language specifically targets defects such as GM’s ignition switches, but could leave helpless whistleblowers in cases like Volkswagen’s or examples such as Ralph Nader’s outcry as part of his groundbreaking book “Unsafe At Any Speed.”

Sponsors in the Senate lauded the bill’s passage and said it could reduce the chances for further defects.

“After years of not having a multi-year transportation bill, this legislation offered an opportunity to address some safety concerns and recall problems that have been the subject of congressional oversight. I’m particularly pleased the legislation creates incentives for auto-industry whistleblowers to bring safety problems forward so that there’s a tool to quickly fix safety defects and prevent deadly accidents and injuries instead of just responding to safety violations after the fact,” Republican Sen. John Thune, who co-sponsored the whistleblower safety act, said in a statement.

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Thune, said the bill would bring from the shadows engineers who worked within the automobile industry.

“We’ve learned from recent events that the auto industry was not forthcoming about defective products or risks to consumers,” said Nelson. “This bill would reward insiders who become whistleblowers.”

But as part of that bill’s language, protection would only apply to auto-industry employees who speak out and would reward them with up to 30 percent of any monetary sanctions against an automaker. (For a case like GM’s, presumably that amount would be anywhere between $90 million and $270 million.)

The whistleblower protections and incentives mimic similar legislation passed for the financial industry after the recession.

However, the bill’s language doesn’t apply to whistleblowers who would speak out in a case like Volkswagen’s current diesel crisis. According to a spokesman for the Senate’s Commerce committee, the legislation only pertains to safety-related issues — environmental or emissions concerns would be separate legislation. The U.S. Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee is not considering legislation to reward or protect environmental whistleblowers.

A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the largest lobby group for automakers in Washington DC, said the group didn’t have a position on the bill.

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  • Red60r Red60r on Dec 16, 2015

    Nader wounded the Corvair,but flimsy construction, dreadful brakes, and a dead-end engine design nailed the lid on its coffin, even after major suspension upgrades made the handling a real hoot. My 1961 coupe had an added front sway bar and rear transverse leaf spring that cleaned up the worst of its oversteer, but it was hard to excuse the way the oil pan screws had to be tightened every few days, along with dealers' uncaring service and support attitudes. Today's new cars are loaded with safety electro-nannies that can bail out a host of incompetent drivers, but there is still no reliable defense against DUI and plain old-fashioned stupidity. Consumers do have a right to expect products that perform as advertised -- not just pie-in-sky EPA numbers and needlessly complex touch panels that dazzle rather than assist.

  • Turf3 Turf3 on Dec 16, 2015

    What are the standards that determine whether a vehicle is "appropriately safe" and what are the standards that determine whether a vehicle, once deemed "not appropriately safe", got that way through malfeasance or commercial pressures? If you manufacture a vehicle with 10 air bags, which meets the current regulatory standards, and your competitor uses 15 air bags, but you didn't because of cost or styling concerns, will you be subject to prosecution by any "whistleblower" who decides to come forward and gouge you? And this leaves aside things like the GM fiasco where drunk, high, or otherwise incapacitated people drove cars off the road at high speed, and when in the chaos of the ensuing collision the ignition switch turned off and the air bags didn't inflate, the whole thing is blamed on the ignition switch. I foresee lots more lawsuits coming, few if any of which will result in any actual improvement in automobiles.

  • Sgeffe Bronco looks with JLR “reliability!”What’s not to like?!
  • FreedMike Back in the '70s, the one thing keeping consumers from buying more Datsuns was styling - these guys were bringing over some of the ugliest product imaginable. Remember the F10? As hard as I try to blot that rolling aberration from my memory, it comes back. So the name change to Nissan made sense, and happened right as they started bringing over good-looking product (like the Maxima that will be featured in this series). They made a pretty clean break.
  • Flowerplough Liability - Autonomous vehicles must be programmed to make life-ending decisions, and who wants to risk that? Hit the moose or dive into the steep grassy ditch? Ram the sudden pile up that is occurring mere feet in front of the bumper or scan the oncoming lane and swing left? Ram the rogue machine that suddenly swung into my lane, head on, or hop up onto the sidewalk and maybe bump a pedestrian? With no driver involved, Ford/Volkswagen or GM or whomever will bear full responsibility and, in America, be ambulance-chaser sued into bankruptcy and extinction in well under a decade. Or maybe the yuge corporations will get special, good-faith, immunity laws, nation-wide? Yeah, that's the ticket.
  • FreedMike It's not that consumers wouldn't want this tech in theory - I think they would. Honestly, the idea of a car that can take over the truly tedious driving stuff that drives me bonkers - like sitting in traffic - appeals to me. But there's no way I'd put my property and my life in the hands of tech that's clearly not ready for prime time, and neither would the majority of other drivers. If they want this tech to sell, they need to get it right.
  • TitaniumZ Of course they are starting to "sour" on the idea. That's what happens when cars start to drive better than people. Humanpilots mostly suck and make bad decisions.