Federal auto safety regulators demanded answers from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) about its handling of 20 recalls, including one tied to gas tank fires in certain older model Jeep vehicles, and on Monday, FCA delivered.
Hand delivered, to be precise, detailed responses on its recall performance amid allegations that the automaker has been too slow in making repairs.
Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a special order demanding information from Fiat Chrysler related to recalls involving 10 million vehicles. The company had until 5:00 p.m. on June 1 to provide documents describing everything from its communications with dealerships to the number of consumer complaints received and lawsuits filed on each of the recalls.
"FCA US LLC has responded to NHTSA's special order," said the company in a statement. "We take seriously the safety and satisfaction of our customers and remain committed to continuously improving our products. FCA US strives in all cases to complete full investigations, develop robust remedies and execute recalls in a timely manner, as evidenced by our campaign completion rates. However, we continue to be open to additional measures that would further improve our performance."
The release of information comes ahead of a July 2nd public hearing, also demanded by NHTSA, during which federal safety regulators, representatives of the automaker and members of the public will be allowed to testify about FCA's performance in each of the recalls -- a performance that has already drawn less than stellar reviews.
NHTSA has complained that FCA's recall completion rates have been too low, in one case only 4 percent of recalled vehicles had been repaired after the recall had been in effect for nearly two years. Fiat Chrysler even admitted in a letter to its dealerships that certain recall completion rates had not met expectations.
"It is not enough to identify defects," said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. "Manufacturers have to fix them."
His agency has expressed substantial concerns about the "significant safety hazards posed to consumers" in connection with Fiat Chrysler's execution of its recalls. Automobile safety advocates go even further.
"People are dying and Chrysler is stalling," said Clarence Ditlow, Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety.
Fiat Chrysler's recall campaigns under review encompass a wide range of potential vehicular hazards including, alternator failures, ignition switch movement, loss of steering control, air bag ruptures and the risk of fire in rear impact collisions.
In March, CBS News aired an investigative report on fatal fires in certain Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty models when the vehicles are struck from behind, puncturing the gas tank. NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation started investigating the Jeeps in 2010. For three years, Chrysler argued the vehicles weren't defective and that the investigation should be closed.
In June 2013, NHTSA sent a letter asking Chrysler to recall the vehicles tentatively concluding there was a defect that presented an unreasonable risk of being burned to death in rear impact crashes. But it wasn't until after a private meeting between then Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, former NHTSA Administrator David Strickland and FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne that Chrysler agreed to take action by installing trailer-hitches on 1.5 million impacted vehicles.
But customers complained they couldn't get the parts or were being turned away by dealerships. After nearly two years, recalls related to the vehicles had repair completion rates between just 4 percent and 27 percent.
"Any auto defect that compromises the safety of our driving public is unacceptable," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said concerning all recalls. "Auto manufacturers are obligated to effectively remedy safety defects when they are discovered, and if they fail in that responsibility, we are obligated to act."
Safety advocates like Ditlow want that action to be decisive.
"NHTSA should impose the maximum possible civil fine under the law," said Ditlow. "The Justice Department should prosecute Chrysler and its responsible executives for criminal homicide for any deaths due to the delay in carrying out this recall."
Before the Jeep recalls were issued, government figures put the death toll from fires in rear impact collisions at more than 50 people. The family of one victim, 4-year-old Remington Walden, sued Chrysler. In April, a Georgia jury ruled against the car company, awarding Walden's family $150 million. Shortly thereafter, Chrysler filed a motion appealing the verdict. The automaker maintains that the vehicles are not defective and that they met all safety standards in place when they were produced.
Walden family attorney, Jim Butler, disagrees. He alleges Chrysler knew for years there was a problem with the rear fuel tanks on older model Jeeps. He says the company also knew trailer-hitches, the fix covered under the recall, wouldn't protect the gas tanks.
"The real issue is not FCA's dawdling on making the so-called 'repair'; the real issue is the proposed 'repair' is a total fraud," Butler said pointing, as proof, to a deposition from one of Chrysler's own engineers saying a trailer-hitch would not protect the gas tank on the affected Jeep models.
Butler, along with auto safety experts, also stress that the recall covers only a trailer-hitch assembly, which cannot be used in towing. Recall customers who receive the fix report getting letters reading, "DO NOT attempt to tow with the campaign installed trailer hitch assembly" and "this campaign trailer-hitch assembly does not include the necessary wiring harness and/or other heavy-duty components required for towing."
Chrysler also advises recalled Jeep owners against driving with the ball and ball mount attached to the hitch assembly.That's because when NHTSA tested the trailer-hitch fix after the recall was announced, it found the ball mount when not being used for towing increased the chances of ripping open the gas tanks in rear-end accidents.
Both Chrysler and NHTSA say, without the ball mount, the trailer-hitch solution provides incremental safety benefits in low to moderate speed crashes. But the safety of those Jeeps and the effectiveness of the recall will likely be addressed at the July 2 hearing in Washington, DC.
After the hearing, if NHTSA determines that the company has failed to meet its legal obligations under the Motor Vehicle Safety Act in any of the 20 recalls under review, the agency could order the buy-back or replacement of affected vehicles. Fiat Chrysler could always appeal that decision and, if it did, NHTSA would have to take the issue to federal court to compel action.