The ABCs of vehicle certification

July 1, 2004
BEFORE Mike Kastner launched into his vehicle certification presentation at The Work Truck Show, he made sure his audience knew that his intended target

BEFORE Mike Kastner launched into his vehicle certification presentation at The Work Truck Show, he made sure his audience knew that his intended target group probably was larger than what was assembled in Room 316 at the Baltimore Convention Center.

“Everybody has a responsibility in this chain, some more than others,” said Kastner, the National Truck Equipment Association's director of government regulations. “But even people who are not doing manufacturing should know about this. Dealers who are working with distributors would be well-served to understand certification, along with large fleet purchasers.”

Kastner defined certification as the act of confirming formally or verifying. In the case of vehicle certification, that means verifying that a vehicle meets the applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards set down by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

It's a self-certification process.

“You're the ones who take the responsibility,” Kastner said. “NHTSA doesn't certify vehicles. You can call us (Kastner and Bob Raybuck, the NTEA's manager of technical services), and we'll walk you through the steps to insure that the vehicle you're building adheres to all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.”

He said there are 55 FMVSS regulations, 32 of which are applicable to trucks.

“That's a lot of regulations,” he said. “There's no question that motor vehicles and motor vehicle manufacturing is a highly regulated industry, as it should be. As a result, the vehicles that are produced are very safe vehicles. FMVSS are living documents that are constantly being updated and tweaked. As research and technology move along, those safety standards change, so you need to keep abreast and understand what the changes are.”

The authority

He said the underlying statutory or legal authority is Title 49 of the United States Code, Section 30115 (certification of compliance). NHTSA regulations are 49 CFR Part 567 (certification) and 49 CFR Part 568 (vehicle manufactured in two or more stages).

49 USC 30112 prohibits a person from “manufacturing for sale, selling, offering for sale, introducing, or delivering for introduction into interstate commerce, or importing into the United States, a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment manufactured on or after the date of an applicable FMVSS unless the vehicle or equipment complies with the standard and is covered by a certification issued under Section 30115.

“That's the heart of it,” Kastner said. “You can't just sell a truck unless it's certified. That's what it all really boils down to.”

Manufacturers of motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment are required to certify — a manufacturer being a person “manufacturing or assembling motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment for resale.” They must register with NHTSA as required by 49 CFR Part 566 (manufacturer identification).

The different types of vehicle certification: incomplete vehicle (such as a chassis manufacturer); intermediate stage certification (“anyone who does work on the incomplete vehicle but does not finish it, then sends it on to the final-stage manufacturer); final stage certification (“the truck is finished and meets standards”); and altered certification (“you do a pickup box removal or snowplow mount to a completely certified vehicle”).

All vehicles must be certified in the final stage, and manufacturing operations performed on motor vehicles prior to the first purchase (meaning licensed and titled in some state) must be certified. The certification (and labeling) obligation ends when the vehicle has been certified in the final stage and the vehicle has gone through the first purchase, meaning it has been licensed and titled in some state.

49 USC 30122 prohibits “a manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business from knowingly making inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed on a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard.” Raybuck said used vehicles are still subject to the recall and remedy provisions of the Safety Act (Chapter 301 of Motor Vehicle Safety).

“Don't ask a truck distributor to do something to a used vehicle that they couldn't do originally to a new vehicle,” he said. “An example: Asking for a pickup box removal on a used chassis that they couldn't certify to if it was a brand new chassis coming from the dealer.”

The elements

The critical elements of certification:

  • Payload analysis.

    Before replacing existing vehicles with new vehicles of the same specification, weigh them (loaded with all the tools and equipment) to make sure that the GAWRs (front and rear) and the GVWR are not exceeded; and ask the customer how much payload he carries, because overloading might constitute a safety defect.

    “If the customer has a truck with a 10,000-lb GVW and your body, payload, and equipment all would go at 8,000 lb, if he's looking at carrying a 3,000-lb payload, the truck isn't going to be sufficient for his needs,” Raybuck said. “He's not going to be happy. And if you overload either the front or rear GAWR or the total GVWR, there is an incident interpretation letter that states that can constitute a safety defect.

    “Your customer may say, ‘I only need a 2,000-lb payload,’ and then he carries 3,000 lb. That's something you have no control over. With flatbeds and van bodies, it's pretty tough to figure out what they're going to put in. But if a guy wants a 5-yd dump body and wants to put it on a 15,000 GVW truck and he's going to tell you he's carrying Ping-Pong balls all the time, you might be suspicious about that application.”

    He said the NTEA offers a payload analysis worksheet that is a “great tool.”

  • Weight distribution.

    “We know we can build it,” Raybuck said, “but will it work? If I have too much weight on the rear axle, that's not the best driving capability you've ever seen.”

    A weight distribution should be performed using maximum net payload to determine if GAWRs are exceeded. If so, reduce the payload accordingly and revise the payload analysis. Both payload analysis and weight distribution need to be kept as part of the certification documentation.

    “With some vehicles, that will be easy,” Raybuck said. “If you have done a bunch of F-450s with 2-yd dump bodies, you have a pretty good idea of what the normal application is. You can do a couple of weight distribution and payload analyses to determine, ‘Can I meet the different regulations?’ And then keep those basic copies for the certification analysis and refer back to them, rather than do it over again if the vehicle changes body size or has a different wheelbase.”

    He said NTEA members can fill out a weight distribution form and submit it to the NTEA, which will perform an analysis.

  • FMVSS compliance analysis.

    The Incomplete Vehicle Document contains conditional compliance statements (or body builders book, for alterers). The vehicle type, model, and GVWR will determine which standards are applicable. Determine the type of certification statement (Type I, II, or III), and compare the manufacturing operations (body and equipment installation) with the certification statement.

“One of the most important documents you get with your incomplete vehicle is the incomplete vehicle document,” Raybuck said. “Members call us a lot saying, ‘Well, I don't have an incomplete vehicle document. The dealer decided to keep it because he thought it was part of the owner's manual.’ At the very top of the forms, they tell you, ‘This manual is required by law to be kept in the vehicle until it is completed by the final-stage manufacturer.’ So you need to tell your dealers, ‘We need that incomplete vehicle document, because that's the basis for our vehicle certification.’”


Kastner said the final-stage manufacturer and alterer are ultimately responsible for certification.

“There's a chain of events in certifying a vehicle,” he said. “Everyone in that chain has responsibility. Ultimately, at the end of the day, a final-stage manufacturer and, in the case of an altered vehicle, an alterer, have the ultimate responsibility. The final-stage manufacturer puts the final-stage label on and by doing that is saying, ‘This vehicle meets all the applicable standards.’”

According to regulations, the label must be put on the “… hinge pillar, door-latch post, or the door edge that meets the door-latch post, next to the driver's seating position, or … to the left side of the instrument panel … the inward facing surface of the door next to the driver's seating position.”

“You can petition NHTSA for an alternate space if you can't fit one in those spots,” Kastner said. “Ultimately, the label should be as easily found and as visible as possible.”

The fine, according to the TREAD Act's amended 49 USC Section 30165(a), is $5,000 for each violation up to a maximum of $15 million for a series of violations.

Kastner said that in product liability lawsuits, it's not necessarily a defense to claim that government standards have been adhered to.

“The best defense is building the safest vehicle you can and keeping records to prove it,” he said, recommending that those records be kept for at least 10 years.

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.