David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, took office at the start of 2010, just as Toyota started a series of recalls over unintended acceleration that ultimately included more than 14 million vehicles worldwide.
Overseeing the U.S. investigation was the first major test for Strickland, 44, but it was by no means the last. NHTSA was back in the headlines this spring when Chrysler Group publicly chafed at a demand that the automaker recall millions of Jeep Grand Cherokees and Jeep Libertys for fire risks.
Chrysler later agreed to recall many of the vehicles, saying it will install a trailer hitch to better protect their fuel tanks in low-impact crashes. But the investigation continues. NHTSA has not ruled out the possibility that it will ask Chrysler to do more.
Strickland discussed the case this week with Publisher Jason Stein, News Editor Krishnan Anantharaman and Staff Reporter Gabe Nelson.
You asked Chrysler to recall vehicles that met safety standards when sold. Why?
It really is based on the notion of unreasonable risk. And that is an evolving notion. What would be considered a reasonable risk in terms of safety technology or performance for a certain period of time [depends] on the evolution of the rest of the fleet, comparing one set of vehicles to their peer group. That definition will evolve.
Is this a new approach for NHTSA in its investigations?
Definitionally speaking, the agency has not changed where it has been with regard to the defects process but I think we all have to recognize that if state of the art moves all the peers in one direction, and it appears that there is another part of the fleet that has not made those same moves or improvements, I think that it's going to be very hard for us to be able to deny the fact of whether the decision to make those changes or not was reasonable or unreasonable.
That's the reason why, after taking a look at the data and the performance of the Chrysler vehicles, we made the initial recall request for the ZJ, the KJ and the WJ platforms.
Why didn't NHTSA ask Chrysler to recall the Jeep Cherokee, or XJ, which also had a fuel tank mounted behind the rear axle until it was discontinued in 2001?
There are a number of factors that we have to look at. Sometimes, when you ask the engineering question, there may be a similar design but a difference in performance.
There is also the ongoing risk of how the vehicle is going to propagate this problem in the future. When you have a very old vehicle, there is going to be fewer and fewer of them in the fleet as time goes on, to the point where they are going to basically not exist in the fleet anymore. That's part of the evaluation, too.
In future cases where you deem a vehicle to be unsafe despite meeting the regulations of the time, would you make a similar request?
It's a personal responsibility [as part of] the agency's mission. It's very hard to change or upgrade a federal motor vehicle safety standard. Sometimes it can be decades. Sometimes it can be 20 or 30 years. And I think the one thing that we've been able to use to backstop the inability to reach back and upgrade standards -- because of cost and time and all sorts of other factors -- is that you have the notion of unreasonable risk being the backdrop.
We can make the evaluation of state of the art as we work with the manufacturers and if we have one manufacturer of any type or description that we feel does not fall within that zone of what can be seen as a reasonable risk we're going to ask a manufacturer to deal with it.
Some auto safety advocates want NHTSA to test Jeeps the way it did Pintos. Will you consider that?
Everything is on the table at this point. We have to follow the process, which is an engineering analysis, which is going to involve getting a tremendous amount of data from Chrysler. We'll take a look at their data, and if we're able to make a decision from that, we'll make a decision off of that.
If we find that the data, the process at Chrysler has left us some questions that need to be answered, we will take any further step we need to. I am not going to shy away from this question. I recognize the fact that this Chrysler recall is probably going to be one of the most highly scrutinized recalls -- probably, I think, even beyond Toyota.
How will you decide whether Chrysler has done enough to make its vehicles safe?
When you're talking about a rear crash with very high energy, there is no such thing as making that a zero risk in terms of fire. The question is, [when] you look at the entire peer population of vehicles in that space, how they perform. If Chrysler's remedy brings the performance of their vehicles to within that zone of reasonableness along with the peer population, that's the place where NHTSA wants them to be.
Were you surprised that Chrysler reacted the way it did?
I was personally surprised. I think [then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood] was personally surprised, because we really do try to make these decisions as carefully as possible. When the agency takes that step to make that request, we feel very strongly that even without any more data from the manufacturer, we could go to district court and we would be able to go through the process and get a mandatory recall -- which very rarely, if ever, happens. So the fact that Chrysler initially responded that way with the data we had, I think that we were a little surprised by it.
But that also meant that we needed to have a very open and transparent conversation with Chrysler about what we saw, about what they saw, and we needed to go through the data very carefully. We're very happy that with our conversation with [Chrysler Chairman Sergio] Marchionne, myself and the secretary, ultimately we were able to find a way to move forward.
Had you met Mr. Marchionne before your meeting?
Oh, yeah. We really try to build relationships with all of our leaders, not only at the OEM level but at the supplier level as well. We want for manufacturers and suppliers to be proactive, so they can come to the agency knowing that we will hold confidential, proprietary data very carefully and not release it. They will know that we have a very regular, ordered process and we don't vary from it, regardless of who we're dealing with. [If we can] create that atmosphere, I think we're all better served.
We've had the same conversations with senior folks at Chrysler as we've had with Ford, as with GM, as with the Asian manufacturers and the European manufacturers. I've been very happy with how those relationships have evolved and built.