Has It Been 30 Years Already?

Vehicle Identification Numbers will reset this year--here's how to decode the new system

If you haven't noticed already, you will soon: Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) requirements are changing to provide more information about automobiles and light-duty trucks in their codes.

VINs are a bit like Social Security numbers--each vehicle has its own unique identification, and used properly, you can get a lot of information from it. But with manufacturers building more than 60 million vehicles a year, those numbers have slowly but surely begun to run out, leaving industry experts to figure out a solution to avoid number duplication, which could lead to some serious confusion.

A 1980 federal law states that, "The VINs of any two vehicles manufactured within a 30-year period shall not be identical."

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), that period was expected to expire in 2010 and "would adversely impact the many organizations that maintain an orderly system for identifying and tracking vehicles."


The story actually begins way back in 1954, when the first VINs started to appear as a way of identifying and describing individual vehicles produced by a manufacturer. From the start, VINs had a public safety value, as they were intended to deter vehicle theft, and allow for more accurate and efficient manufacturer recalls. But, according to NHTSA, there was no industry-wide system in place at the time, and so early VINs came in a confusing variety of configurations.

That chaos came to an end in 1969, when Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 115 took effect. According NHTSA's final rule document for the current revision, the original standard "required each passenger car to have a VIN that is permanently ‘sunk or embossed' on a part of the vehicle visible through the glazing by a person standing at the left windshield pillar. Manufacturers were required to avoid having a VIN be repeated within a 10-year period."

Believe it or not, it was Volkswagen of America, along with the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, who, with NHTSA, brought about the current 17-character system. The idea was to create "an even more structured and standardized system of VINs as well as expanding the system to additional classes of vehicles," according to NHTSA.

That rule kicked in at the start of the 1981 model year, and has been with us ever since.


But with the sun about to set on that old rule, NHTSA had to act to ensure that there wouldn't be a car and truck rolling off an assembly line in 2009 with a VIN that matched that of, say, a 1981 Volkswagen. NHTSA spokesperson Ray Tyson says it is difficult to predict what troubles may have been caused by duplicate VINs, but no one in the industry wanted to find out.

"It's like running out of anything; it's something you don't want to have happen and we anticipated it and the manufacturers' anticipated it before it got to that point," he says. "You can't (duplicate numbers). You can't ever assume that simply because a number may be old that it isn't still in service. This modifies the vehicle identification number to the extent that we're guaranteed we'll have an adequate supply of vehicle identification numbers for the next 30 years."

The warning about the dwindling availability of numbers was first sounded several years ago by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International, which formed a committee to address the issue earlier this decade, and in 2005 issued a petition regarding concerns about the available supply of VINs; in particular the manufacturer identification part.

The matter first appeared in the public arena back in 2004, when several articles were written about the SAE's attempts to solve the problem. Many options were considered, but one choice SAE did not recommend was creating longer VINs--enough to hold 18 or 19 character codes that would not repeat for 100 years or so.

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