2010 Tesla Roadster interior
Tesla Motors, Lamborghini and a handful of other low-volume automakers may lose a "hardship" exemption that allows for the sale of vehicles with airbags that fail to comply with current U.S. safety standards. According to Automotive News (sub. req.), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) may stop handing out waivers that allow vehicles without advanced airbags to be sold in the U.S.

The NHTSA's response to requests by Lotus and Tesla to renew their airbag-related exemptions reads as follows:
NHTSA tentatively concludes that the expense of advanced airbag technology is not now sufficient, in and of itself, to justify the grant of a petition for a hardship exemption from the advanced airbag requirement.
Tesla asked for the exemption to cover the Roadster, which the company will stop making later this year. The Model S, which goes on sale in mid-2012, will apparently have airbags that meet NHTSA standards.

It's not just Tesla that's potentially in a bind. Wheego – maker of the two-seat electric LiFe – may lose its exemption too. Les Seagraves, Wheego's vice-president of product development, told AN that:
We had been working on this vehicle for about three years and in order to put the advanced airbags in the car, it would have cost us another million and a half dollars and another 18 months of development. We're a tiny startup company. That would have pretty much put us out of business.
However, Seagraves clarified this taken-out-of-context quote by telling us that:
As a developer of all electric cars, the airbag exemption was used for the exact purpose it was designed: it allowed us to bring an important, innovative electric vehicle to market in a more timely manner. Had we not been granted the original waiver, we would still be in design phase rather than delivering the LiFe to our reservation holders and dealers.
The NHTSA began requiring advanced airbags back in 2004. However, the Agency allowed exceptions for automakers that produce less than 10,000 vehicles a year. As we see it, safety is paramount and exemptions – especially ones that could result in an increased risk of injury in the event of a crash – have got to go.

*UPDATE: Les Seagraves, Wheego's vice-president of product development, contacted AutoblogGreen via email to clarify the automaker's airbag-related exemption. Seagraves wrote:

Most importantly, we are not in danger of losing our current airbag exemption. Our current exemption carries us through manufacturing all the LiFe vehicles we plan to make, and our future models will have the advanced airbags. NHTSA is apparently considering not extending some waivers beyond their current expiration date; however, we have no plans at this time to apply for an extension so that decision will not affect us.

We did not receive our exemption based on financial hardship; it was granted to us based on making the development of low-emission vehicles easier without unreasonably lowering the safety level of the vehicles.

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Photos copyright ©2009 Sebastian Blanco / AOL

[Source: Automotive News – sub. req.]