General Motors and a brake supplier plan to meet with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this summer in an effort to thwart a massive and expensive recall of some GM pickup trucks and sport-utilities.
The government agency has received 8,400 complaints that LucasVarity four-wheel antilock brakes do not operate properly on 1992-94 Chevrolet and GMC Suburbans, 1991-94 Chevrolet Blazers, GMC Jimmys and Oldsmobile Bravadas and 1991-94 Chevrolet and GMC S-series pickups.
Some vehicle owners simply say the brakes don't feel right. But others claim the brakes fail and cause crashes. NHTSA has fielded no complaints saying the alleged problem caused a death.
John McCuen, general counsel for LucasVarity Light Vehicle Braking Systems, said NHTSA has indicated that it has found evidence of corrosion on some of the brakes. But he said there is no problem.
'We believe we can prove that convincingly,' McCuen said. 'We have requested a meeting to present independent studies to try to thwart the corrosion issue.'
LucasVarity Light Vehicle Braking Systems, based in Livonia, Mich., is a division of London-based LucasVarity PLC. The division was formerly known as VarityKelsey-Hayes before Lucas Industries PLC acquired its former parent, Varity Corp.
2 COURT RULINGS
NHTSA has been investigating the alleged problem since 1994, and two courts recently issued rulings on the matter.
On June 11, a U.S. District Court judge in St. Louis dismissed a class-action case against GM and LucasVarity that involved 11 cases from around the country.
The plaintiffs charged that the antilock brakes in the GM vehicles did not operate properly.
The judge called the plaintiffs claims 'puffery' and said they missed statute-of-limitations deadlines.
On June 12, a jury in Los Angeles Superior Court returned a verdict in favor of GM and LucasVarity against similar allegations brought by Mercury Insurance Group of Brea, Calif.
'I doubt the (court) verdicts will have much influence on NHTSA,' McCuen said, 'but I don't think there will be a recall.'
Added GM spokesman Kyle Johnson: 'We're pleased with the jury's verdict. The Suburban doesn't have an ABS defect.'
NHTSA has two separate investigations: on 1991-94 Blazers, Jimmys, Bravadas and S-series pickups; and on 1992-94 Suburbans.
'Testing is still ongoing, and we anticipate a decision on these investigations this summer,' NHTSA said.
The agency said it has about 8,400 antilock-brake complaints on the vehicles, a high number by agency standards. NHTSA said about 2.1 million of the vehicles under investigation are on the road.
In most of the cases, the complainants contend that the pedal goes all the way to the floor upon braking, causing the driver to think there has been a total brake failure. Some complainants say the alleged problem caused crashes - 560 involving the vehicles under investigation by NHTSA.
'There are complaints about the feel of the brakes, but that doesn't mean they're defective,' GM's Johnson said. 'We have found no defect that would cause those crashes.'
However, Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington consumer group, said: 'There have been too many complaints for it to be driver error.'
Bob Norton, assistant general counsel at LucasVarity's Light Brake Division, said a truck has more pedal travel than a car. He said he believes the complaints derive from drivers' unfamiliarity with antilock brakes.
He also said NHTSA is testing the corrosion theory because Chrysler Corp. was forced to recall some of its vehicles last year due to corrosion in the antilock-brake hydraulic control unit.
'The corrosion theory is preposterous,' Norton said, adding that NHTSA has not indicated where it got the corroded systems.
The antilock-brake model in question is the Kelsey-Hayes ECBIV.
Chevrolet dealers told Automotive News it could cost $1,000 to $2,000 per vehicle to repair the braking systems.
A recall could be very costly for LucasVarity.
McCuen said his company has an agreement with GM that if warranty costs are below a certain level for a certain part, GM will pay the cost. But if warranty costs go above that stated level, the supplier picks up warranty costs.
The cost of a recall would lead to 'some serious discussions' between GM and LucasVarity, McCuen said.
The cost of a recall could theoretically reach billions of dollars to GM and LucasVarity. But the figure would depend on the number of vehicles recalled, how many owners responded and the cost of the repairs.
The LucasVarity brakes were used in other GM vehicles such as the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari.
NHTSA said if it orders any type of corrective action with the vehicles it is investigating, it may extend the action to other vehicles using the system.