Nearly 10 months after agreeing to recall 1.56 million Jeeps, Chrysler is still gearing up to fix the SUVs.
Safety advocates critical of Chrysler’s slow reaction say the company is taking too long in another case showing the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration’s inability and unwillingness to effectively regulate the auto industry.
“It took a very long time for Chrysler to agree to do this, and the agency had to be forced to act,” said Joan Claybrook, a consumer advocate and former head of NHTSA.
There are some similarities between the Jeep recall and the one that has thrust General Motors into the spotlight since February. Chrysler is dealing with 1.56 million older-model SUVs while GM is recalling about 2.6 million older small cars.
Both alleged defects – a rear-mounted gas tank at risk for fiery rear-end collisions in the Jeep SUVs and ignition switches that can shut off while driven – have been linked to fatal accidents.
There are, however, key differences. While Chrysler has agreed to conduct a safety campaign to install trailer hitches to provide additional protection in low-speed crashes, the automaker still contends its SUVs are not defective. The automaker has not said when the trailer hitches will be ready.
GM, in contrast, has apologized repeatedly for the ignition switch defects and has said dealers can start replacing them by mid-April.
Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne said multiple suppliers are making the trailer hitches necessary to complete the recall.
“Launching a safety recall demands complex engineering and close collaboration with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration well before we accumulate replacement parts,” Chrysler said in a statement. “Chrysler Group takes seriously its commitment to customer safety.”
Meanwhile, NHTSA plans to issue its final report on the Jeep investigation “in the coming weeks.”
“Regardless of whether a trailer hitch is a miracle solution or not, there is no reasonable explanation” for the time it is taking Chrysler to complete the recall, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety. “They announced the recall last June and it is now in April?”
NHTSA’s initial investigation into the Jeep Grand Cherokees and Jeep Libertys was prompted by Ditlow’s request in 2009.
Nearly four years later, Chrysler agreed to conduct a “safety campaign,” for Grand Cherokees from 1993-98 and Libertys from 2002-07 after initially defying the agency’s request for a recall.
Chrysler argued that the SUVs “do not contain a defect,” in a letter sent to NHTSA last year when it agreed to conduct the recall.
“Most of the crashes identified by NHTSA . were extremely severe crashes involving energy levels far in excess of any reasonable expectation for fuel tank performance,” Chrysler said.
NHTSA, however, concluded that the recalled SUVs are defective because fuel tanks mounted behind the rear axle performed poorly in rear-end collisions, and were involved in 37 fiery crashes and 51 fatalities.
Safety advocates immediately criticized Chrysler’s trailer-hitch proposal and challenged NHTSA’s willingness to accept that remedy.
“The recall was a joke to begin with,” said Jenelle Embrey of Fairfax, Va., who witnessed a fatal accident involving a Jeep Grand Cherokee several years ago. “These hitches are designed to tow trailers, not provide protection from accidents.”
In January, NHTSA gave Chrysler the green light to move ahead with the trailer hitch fix.
“Throughout this process, the agency has been in close communication with Chrysler and has no reservations with their announced actions,” the agency said.
Chrysler sent letters to affected Jeep owners late last year, but has not yet notified them about when dealers can install the trailer hitches.
What’s the hold-up?
“Chrysler Group has finalized replacement-part design and initiated the tooling process to deliver the required volume,” the company said in a statement.
NHTSA won’t say whether it conducted the crash tests recommended by Ditlow, who is anxiously awaiting NHTSA’s final report.
Ditlow also is critical of former NHTSA administrator David Strickland, who resigned in December and is now working as a partner in Washington, D.C.-based Venable, a large law firm that provides legal advice on tax issues to a range of clients, including Chrysler.
“If (NHTSA) did not conduct the crash tests . and if Strickland did not recuse himself from the final decision-making, then we believe we have a good federal lawsuit,” Ditlow said.
Embrey, who waged her own campaign against Chrysler with a petition drive and billboards, is furious that the safety agency has not been more aggressive with Chrysler. Last summer, Embrey attended a meeting with Strickland and others at NHTSA urging the agency to require Chrysler to find a different remedy to fix the fuel tanks.
“I knew when we left that meeting that we were screwed,” Embrey said.
Nevertheless, Embrey is weeks away from completing a book called “Dangerous Jeeps and Me” that she intends to self-publish. She also still maintains a website called DangerousJeeps.com.
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE JEEP RECALL
November 2009: Center for Auto Safety submits formal request asking National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee’s with fuel tanks located behind the rear axle.
August 2010: NHTSA opens a preliminary investigation.
June 12, 2012: NHTSA opens an investigation into the fuel tank placement on 1993-2004 Grand Cherokees and expands to scope to include 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty’s.
June 3, 2013: NHTSA asks Chrysler to recall 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys after concluding the SUVs “contain defects.”
June 4, 2013: Chrysler responds to NHTSA’s recall letter, saying it “disagrees with NHTSA’s conclusions,” and that its Jeeps “do not pose an unreasonable risk . in rear-impact collisions.”
June 18, 2013: Chrysler agrees to conduct a “safety campaign” and install trailer hitches on 1.56 million Jeep Grand Cherokees from 1993-98 and Jeep Liberty SUVs from 2002-07. Additionally, Chrysler also agrees to conduct a “service action” for 1.14 million Jeep Grand Cherokees for model years 1999-2004. Chrysler dealers will inspect those vehicles and replace aftermarket trailer hitches with original equipment trailer hitches.
July 1, 2013: Safety advocates meet with NHTSA, challenging the wisdom of allowing Chrysler to install trailer hitches.
Jan. 17, 2014: NHTSA says it approves of the proposed trailer hitch remedy, saying it “has no reservations at this time,” and giving Chrysler the green light to move ahead.
April 2014: NHTSA is expected to issue its “closing resume,” or its final analysis of the recall investigation into the Jeep fuel tanks in the coming weeks.