Larry P. Vellequette
Larry P. Vellequette
Chrysler Group reporter

Jeep's software fix and the law of unintended consequences

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Jeep set a global sales record in 2013 at 731,565 vehicles. It also had a big number of recalls of its vehicles.

But one of last year's Jeep recalls led to an unintended consequence for some owners of 2005-10 Grand Cherokee and 2006-10 Commanders -- a consequence Chrysler now says it intends to fix, at least for most people.

Here's what happened.

In May, Chrysler Group recalled about 296,000 of the above-mentioned SUVs in the United States to reflash the final drive control unit to address an electrical fault in the transfer case that could allow the transfer case to shift into neutral on its own.

The updated software addressed the problem of the Jeeps' shifting into neutral, but for some customers, it exposed another: customers reported getting warning lights after the reflash saying that their 4x4 systems needed service.

On online forums, some Jeep owners complained that the new software hadn't fixed their Jeeps, but broke them. When they took their SUVs to dealers, they were told that they needed a new transfer case actuator, a part that cost between $800 and $1,000 to replace.

A Chrysler spokesman said that the software reflash didn't break the SUVs' actuator, but was now able to correctly identify that the part was malfunctioning -- a condition hidden by the old actuator software.

That knowledge is of little comfort, however, to a consumer who's just driven his Jeep away from the dealer service department only to see a brand new warning light pop up on the instrument panel.

In a statement today, the automaker said that it "is assuming the cost of repairs, on a case-by-case basis, for certain customers who observed warning lights in their instrument clusters following completion of a recall-related software update."

The company also maintains that "the update has no bearing on the root cause of the warning-light activation." It says its engineers "discovered the software update -- which prevents an inadvertent transfer-case shift -- enables identification of a pre-existing condition that was previously undetectable."

There are many ways to fix malfunctioning automotive parts.

But automakers appear to be learning -- after some very hard lessons -- that there are far fewer ways available to fix broken customer loyalty.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

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