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

Aaron Cole
by Aaron Cole
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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.

Aaron Cole
Aaron Cole

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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.

  • Charles When I lived in Los Angeles I saw a 9-5 a few times and instanly admired the sweeping low slug aerodynamic jet tech influenced lines and all that beautiful glass. The car was very different from what I expected from a Saab even though the 900 Turbo was nice. A casual lady friend had a Saab Sonnet, never drove or rode in it but nonetheless chilled my enthusiasm and I eventually forgot about Saabs. In the following years I have had seven Mercedes's, three or four Jaguars even two Daimlers both the 250 V-8 and the massive and powerful Majestic Major. Daily drivers of a brand new 300ZX 2+2 and Lincolns, plus a few diesel trucks. Having moved to my big farm in central New York, trucks and SUV's are the standard, even though I have a Mercedes S500 in one of my barns. Due to circumstances with my Ford Explorer and needing a second driver I found the 2006 9-5 locally. Very little surface rust, none undercarriage, original owner, garage kept, wife driver and all the original literature and a ton of paid receipts and history. The car just turned 200,000 miles and I love it. Feels new like I'm back in my Nissan 300ZX with a lot more European class and ready power with the awesome turbo. So fun to drive, the smooth power and torque is incredible! Great price paid to justify going through the car and giving her everything she needs, i.e., new tires, battery, all shocks, struts, control arms, timing chain and rust removable to come, plus more. The problem now is I want to restore it and likely put it in my concrete barn and only drive in good weather. As to the writer, Alex Dykes, I take great exception calling the 9-5 Saab "ugly," finding myself looking back at her beauty and uniqueness. Moreover, I get new looks from others not quite recognizing, like the days out west with my more expensive European cars. There are Saabs eclipsing 300K rourinely and one at a million miles and I believe one car with 500K on the original engine. So clearly, this is a keeper, in love already with my SportCombi. I want to be in that elite club.
  • Marky S. I own the same C.C. XSE Hybrid AWD as in this article, but in Barcelona Red with the black roof. I love my car for its size, packaging, and the fact that it offers both AWD and Hybrid technology together. Visibility is impressive, as is its small turning circle. I consider the C.C. more of a "station wagon" by proportion, rather than an “SUV.” It is fun to drive, with zippy response and perky pick-up. It is a pleasant car to drive and ride in. It is not trying to be a “Butch Off-Roader”, or a cosseting “Luxury Cruiser.” Those are not its goals or purpose. The Corolla Cross XSE Hybrid AWD is a wonderful All-Purpose Car (O.K. – “SUV” if you must hear me say it!) with a combination of all the features it has at a reasonable price.
  • Ernesto Perez There's a line in the movie Armageddon where Bruce Willis says " is this the best idea NASA came up with?". Don't quote me. I'm asking is this the best idea NY came up with? What's next? Charging pedestrians to walk in certain parts of the city? Every year the price for everything gets more expensive and most of the services we pay for gets worse. Obviously more money is not the solution. What we need are better ideas, strategies and inventions. You want to charge drivers in the city - then put tolls on the free bridges like the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. There's always a better way or product. It's just the idiots on top think they know best.
  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.
  • Carsofchaos The problem with congestion, dear friends, is not the cars per se. I drive into the city daily and the problem is this:Your average street in the area used to be 4 lanes. Now it is a bus lane, a bike lane (now you're down to two lanes), then you have delivery trucks double parking, along with the Uber and Lyft drivers also double parking. So your 4 lane avenue is now a 1.5 lane avenue. Do you now see the problem? Congestion pricing will fix none of these things....what it WILL do is fund persion plans.