Monday Edition: Running Out of VINs

Those little numbers on the dashboard of your car is called the "VIN" or vehicle identification number. By looking at the 17 digit code, made up of numbers and letters, one could tell where the car was built, who owned it, how many miles it had on it every time it was sold and even if the car had been involved in a wreck if the wreck was reported to cops.  The number is supposed to be a one of a kind number, no other car to be built would have the number. 


Well, we have a problem.


Detroit is running out of combinations of VINs and just six years from now, they will be flat out. Expanding the number to another digit would throw millions of computers into problems.  County Court Clerks, cops, motor vehicle registration offices, insurance companies, banks that use the numbers for loans would all have to make huge changes.


Here is the story from The Detroit News:

At the root of the impending shortage is the explosion of vehicle production in recent decades. Automakers build 60 million cars and trucks every year and each one needs a unique VIN in the same way a newborn is given a Social Security number. And that doesn't count heavy trucks, motorcycles and other vehicles that require VINs.

The Society of Automotive Engineers, which established the existing VIN system in 1981 and expected it to last 30 years, has formed a committee to address the impending shortage.

One potential fix: Poach VINs assigned to smaller countries such as Botswana, which don't mass produce vehicles.

Unlike telephone companies, which simply created new area codes to cope with a surge in households, cell phones and fax machines, the committee is not recommending longer VINs --even though 18- or 19-character codes would not repeat for 100 years.

Longer codes would require a major overhaul of computer systems that would dwarf the challenges and expenses spawned by the Y2K computer dilemma, said Dave Proefke, chairman of the committee.

"The scope of the logistical changes and the monetary impact are just astronomical," said Proefke, a technical engineer for vehicle security at General Motors Corp.

At smaller manufacturers, the change would cost tens of millions of dollars, Proefke said.

"For GM, it would mean a significant change for every assembly center we have, all our engineering centers, all our processing centers," he said. explains what each number and letter in the VIN code means:

  • 1st character -- Identifies the country in which the vehicle was manufactured.
    For example: U.S.A.(1 or 4), Cana
    da(2), Mexico(3), Japan(J), Korea(K), England(S), Germany(W), Italy(Z)

  • 2nd character -- Identifies the manufacturer. For example; Audi(A), BMW(B), Buick(4), Cadillac(6), Chevrolet(1), Chrysler(C), Dodge(B), Ford(F), GM Canada(7), General Motors(G), Honda(H), Jaquar(A), Lincoln(L), Mercedes Benz(D), Mercury(M), Nissan(N), Oldsmobile(3), Pontiac(2or5), Plymouth(P), Saturn(8), Toyota(T), VW(V), Volvo(V).

  • 3rd character -- Identifies vehicle type or manufacturing division.

  • 4th to 8th characters -- Identifies vehicle features such as body style, engine type, model, series, etc.

  • 9th character -- Identifies VIN accuracy as check digit.

  • 10th character -- Identifies the model year. For example: 1988(J), 1989(K), 1990(L), 1991(M), 1992(N), 1993(P), 1994(R), 1995(S), 1996(T), 1997(V), 1998(W), 1999(X), 2000(Y)------2001(1), 2002(2), 2003(3)

  • 11th character -- Identifies the assembly plant for the vehicle.

  • 12th to 17th characters -- Identifies the sequence of the vehicle for production as it rolled of the manufacturers assembly line.


Here is a free online VIN decoder. Plug in a VIN and get some history on where the car, boat, motorcycle was built. Other online paid sites, like CarFax, sell you history about a car based on the VIN.

Kerry to Announce VP Online First

Senator Kerry said Friday that he will announces his choice for Vice President first online at

You must register just to access the site. It is a very smart idea when you think about it. If you want to get the news first-hand, you will have to hand over an email, which you can bet will keep you on an active list for months to come.  Of course, seconds after the announcement is made, assuming the announcement does not leak out first, every news organization on the planet will have the news. 

A wonderful political blog says: "In Washington, meanwhile, the (Kerry) campaign has hired the running mate's chief of staff and is selecting other aides, and has reserved a second charter jet and lined up support staff that can handle a vice-presidential candidate's logistics just as it runs Kerry's."

The Wall Street Journal's "Washington Wire" notes that the Kerry campaign "tells E
dwards, Gephardt, and Iowa Gov. Vilsack to keep schedules clear for an announcement as early as Tuesday."

Congressional Quarterly handicaps the field. 


Plans to Disturb the Convention

Journalists should know that several protest groups are planning to disrupt and are even training for protests at the Republic National Convention later this summer (Aug 30-September 2) in New York.

The Associated Press says
 (via Ruckus):

John Timoney, the former NYPD first deputy commissioner who headed the Philadelphia police department during the 2000 Republican National Convention and now is commissioner of Miami's city police force, said there's a "chess game" under way between police and protesters planning street actions. Police now troll the Internet to monitor activists' organizing efforts - applying techniques law enforcers are using against terrorism.

The Ruckus Society, for example, has a website that helps protestors plot how they will protest.  The Society even has a summer training camp (see AP story.) Other sites show protestors how to hang huge banners in public places.

One other group is encouraging people to volunteer for convention duties, then not show up for work, disrupting plans.

There are demonstrators with special tactics, for example, a group of bike riders who are planning several "bike blocks" during the convention that they hope will clog city streets. 


A website called "RNC Not Welcome" provides protestors maps of what it calls "profiteers" of the war in Iraq. The same site offers advice on how to fight with police and still get away safely.

The same site links to an advice column on how to take over and occupy a building. I am thinking that the public should read and know about these columns, to prepare for this kind of "direct action," as the protestors call it.  If building owners and residents knew what the protestors were looking for, they could make the buildings more secure.


AP reported:

The number of protesters landing in the city at convention time can only be guessed at. United for Peace and Justice, the umbrella group planning a huge march and rally for Aug. 29, the day before the convention's official opening, has estimated their crowd that day alone at 250,000.

"I think the word is clearly out in many activist circles," Bill Dobbs, spokesman for United for Peace and Justice, said without irony. "What I tell my friends is, these protests are not to be missed." 

Oddly, one of the websites might be of real use to journalists who end up covering police/protestor clashes.  The site is a survival guide on what to wear and what not to wear in a street fight.  For example, the site claims that oil-based sunscreens trap and absorb pepper spray and keep it close to the skin. Who knew?

Why I Love and You Will Too

Sometimes, a website comes along that journalists should not live without. This is one such site. You will have to download a file to use it.
(a free site if you are willing to put up with some ads-or for pay if you want a cleaner page) does all of the normal stuff that "people search"-type sites do -- it will help you find phone numbers, businesses, look up neighbors and such.  But this will also help you find e-mails (an inexact science.) 

But wait for the cool part.

Argali searches many sites all at once. It will keep you from having to go to a dozen search sites one by one.

Look at everything Argali searches at once:


Unnatural Disasters (Convergence Alert)

The San Bernardino Sun produced a remarkable project
this week about wil
dfires and the floods that follow them. In a note to Al's Morning Meeting,  the Sun's Wes Hughes explains how the project came about:

"It springs in part from last fall's
deadly fires that swept our county and the rest of Southern California and the even more deadly Christmas Day flood that followed."

You will see tons of resources, stories, vi
deo, a live chat, and I really like the interactive map that readers can use to assess their fire risk.


We are always looking for your great ideas. Send Al a few sentences and hot links.

Editor's Note: Al's Morning Meeting is a compendium of ideas, story excerpts, and other materials from a variety of websites, as well as original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it will be attributed, and a link will be provided, whenever possible.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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