Chrysler faces NHTSA query on delayed Jeep fix

Chrysler agreed last June to install hitch assemblies similar to this one on vehicles that didn't already have them to mitigate the risks of fuel leaks and fires in rear impact crashes.
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DETROIT -- Chrysler Group has been placed back in the recall hotseat with federal safety regulators for allegedly dragging its feet in efforts to improve the rear crashworthiness of older-model Jeep Grand Cherokees and Libertys.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has given the automaker until July 16 to explain why it took almost a year for a supplier contracted by Chrysler to begin manufacturing trailer hitch assemblies for about 1.5 million 1993-98 Jeep Grand Cherokees and about a million 2002-07 Jeep Libertys.

Chrysler, in a response, defended its handling of the program and said NHTSA has been aware of its efforts throughout the process. Chrysler has contended that the vehicles are safe. 

The safety agency also said it is concerned that the pace of production of the trailer hitch assemblies has been too slow to adequately meet demand for the vehicles that need to have them installed. It has demanded that Chrysler “produce documents and answer questions as part of NHTSA’s ongoing investigation, based on the agency’s concerns with the pace of Chrysler’s recall efforts” and promised to “take additional appropriate action as warranted.”

Chrysler agreed in a settlement with NHTSA last June to install the hitch assemblies on those model SUVs that didn’t already have them to mitigate the risks of fuel leaks and fires in rear impact crashes. In an unusual step last June, Chrysler initially declined NHTSA’s request to recall the SUVs, as well as later model year Grand Cherokees, but later settled on the proposed trailer assembly fix.

NHTSA acknowledged in its letter that it took the unusual step of testing the hitch assemblies itself and found “the risk of fuel tank ruptures and fires in lower to medium speed rear end crashes will be successfully reduced by the remedy now offered by Chrysler.”

The agency said it notified Chrysler of the successful results of its testing on Jan. 13.

NHTSA said Chrysler “waited until December 6, 2013, to select a hitch supplier and did not issue a purchase order to the hitch supplier until January 29, 2014.” The first run of hitch assemblies was not manufactured until May 14, and customers won’t be able to get them installed until August, NHTSA said.

“Assuming that all of these owners will respond to the notification, it will take Chrysler at least 4.7 years and 2.06 years respectively to produce the required number of Grand Cherokee and Liberty hitches at the current rate of production,” NHTSA said in a letter today to the automaker. “In the event that only half of the notified Grand Cherokee owners respond to the notice and have the remedy installed, it would take Chrysler well over two years to produce the required parts at its present schedule.”

Chrysler response

In a statement, Chrysler said it welcomed NHTSA's findings, noting the agency previously informed Chrysler that "it did not have any reservations about implementation of Chrysler's proposed remedy."

The statement reiterated the automaker's longstanding position, "supported in the public record by real-world data -- that the vehicles are not defective. They are among the safest in their peer groups and met or exceeded the standards in effect at time they were first sold. We remain unwavering in our commitment to design, engineer and build vehicles that afford outstanding customer safety and security."

Chrysler said its hitch campaign has been conducted in close coordination with NHTSA. "The agency has had full knowledge of our activities," the statement said. "Chrysler Group complied with all applicable regulations governing recalls, and has been working with NHTSA all along in this process."

The company said it had to "find and enlist multiple new supplier partners to supply volume of this part that far exceeded normal demand" and that production has begun.

"Our supplier partners are committed to a work schedule of three shifts per day, six days per week, with occasional Sunday production," the statement said. "Chrysler Group has already contacted affected customers and advised them of our intentions. They will be contacted again when the time is appropriate to schedule service. The cost of this work will be borne by the company."

Different climate

Last month, Doug Betts, Chrysler’s head of quality, told Automotive News that if the Jeep recall had occurred in the current political climate this year instead of last year, Chrysler’s response likely would have been different.

“I think we would have rolled over and played dead in a second,” Betts said. “In the environment that we have right now -- it’s a very politicized issue. And when you get into politicization of an issue, then all sense goes out the window and you just try to stay out of the news.”

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

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