Chrysler And NHTSA Engage In Recall Smackdown

June 18, 2013 | Charles Bowen

Jeep-modernIt looks like the end of a recent recall debacle may be drawing near. Chrysler Group issued a formal statement earlier today saying that it will comply with a government demand for the recall of 2.7 million Jeeps due to a risk of potentially deadly car fires.

The whole mess started more than a month ago when the Center for Auto Safety issued a statement decrying the dangers posed by some Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Liberty model SUVs. The CAS said that it had combed through thousands of accident reports and discovered that millions of Jeeps had been designed in such a way that the risk of a vehicle fire was greatly increased. According to the safety group, the problem was the placement of the fuel tanks. All Grand Cherokees made between 1993 and 2004 and Libertys made between 2002 and 2007 have the fuel tank positioned behind the rear axle. The trouble with this location is that when the vehicles are involved in a rear-end collision, this placement and the vehicles’ height combine to make the fuel tank incredibly vulnerable.

The CAS then called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to recall the defectively designed Jeeps, saying they represented a serious safety threat to millions of Americans. The NHTSA, which had launched an investigation into the Jeeps years prior, agreed and demanded that Chrysler recall a whopping 2.7 million SUVs. Most experts thought Chrysler would reluctantly agree, but were stunned when the company came out swinging, issuing a press release standing behind the design of the Jeeps and flatly refusing the NHTSA’s recall demand.

As a result of Chrysler’s initial response, the NHTSA filed a formal complaint with Chrysler about the safety of the Jeeps and gave the car company a deadline to reply by June 18th. If the car company complied, then millions of Jeeps would be recalled at great expense to the company. If Chrysler refused, the NHTSA was prepared to sue to force the recall, something that has not happened in more than a decade.

The fight between Chrysler and the government caught many industry and safety experts by surprise given the increasing tendency among automakers to immediately act in the face of concerns over the safety of their vehicles. Some have said that especially in the wake of the Toyota acceleration recall and the serious damage that episode did to the carmaker, many other auto companies have been easily convinced to issue voluntary recalls at the behest of the NHTSA. That Chrysler stared down the government so long surprised many who were confused about why the car company would be willing to risk the ire of government regulators and a possible public backlash.

The company likely decided the risk of not recalling the SUVs was simply too great. After all, a survey conducted last year by Kelley Blue Book found that 64% of respondents would not consider buying any vehicle from a car company that fought a recall. Not to mention that the longer the issue drags on, the more people who could be injured in rear-impact vehicle fires. Already, the CAS says that Jeep vehicle fires caused by rear-impact collisions have cost the lives of 157 individuals. Though the recall will be expensive--some think the total could easily top $300 million--it’s a small price to pay compared to the terrible cost of dozens more lives lost.