NHTSA expands Fiat Chrysler review to 22 campaigns

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expanding the number of Fiat Chrysler recalls it will review at a July 2 public hearing to 22 campaigns — and found widespread evidence the automaker has failed to meet legal requirements to fix defects, make replacement parts available and notify owners and regulators in a timely fashion.

In May, NHTSA said it was calling the Italian-American automaker in for an unprecedented July 2 public hearing to address questions about 20 recall campaigns covering 11 million vehicles since 2013. In a notice Thursday, NHTSA said it is adding two additional recalls from 2014 covering another 1 million vehicles to its review.

Earlier this month, Fiat Chrysler said it will address all of the agency’s concerns and said it was taking steps to move faster and boost recall completion rates. The automaker’s total submission was more than 5 million pages, the company said.

The new report says the automaker has repeatedly failed to abide by requirements to have replacement parts, notify owners and NHTSA

“NHTSA has tentatively concluded that Fiat Chrysler has not remedied vehicles in a reasonable time and has not adequately remedied vehicles,” the agency said in its new notice.

There will be no cross-examination of witnesses at the July 2 hearing.

NHTSA could fine Fiat Chrysler up to $35 million for each of the recall campaigns if it determines it failed to meet legal requirements — or could order the automaker “to take specified action to meet those requirements, including by ordering the manufacturer to refund the purchase price of the defective or noncomplying vehicles, less a reasonable allowance for depreciation.”

The new filing says Fiat Chrysler has repeatedly failed to meet requirements for recalls — failing to notify owners in a timely fashion and failing to make parts available. In 2013, the company recalled 278,000 SUVs and trucks because a pinion nut on the vehicle’s differential that may come loose.

“Although this recall was initiated over 16 months ago, NHTSA has received, and continues to receive, numerous complaints from owners of these vehicles that they have been unable to have the recall repair performed because parts to perform the repair are not available,” NHTSA said.

In another 2013 recall of 1 million trucks for steering problems, the remedy part had problems — and Fiat Chrysler stopped shipment of the replacement parts.

“At this time, a year and a half after the recall notices were filed, many of the vehicles remain unrepaired. Owners have reported to NHTSA that they have been unable to have their vehicles repaired after making multiple attempts to do so because parts are unavailable,” NHTSA said.

NHTSA says Fiat Chrysler did not notify vehicle owners for over five months of the risk of potential air bag inflator ruptures in one campaign last year and the automaker “still has not notified vehicle owners” in another campaign — nearly six months after filing a defect report.

The company said it has boosted the number of product investigators by 65 percent since last year, created a biweekly executive campaign execution review team to oversee recalls and has plans for a “review of the recall execution process to identify and measure additional improvement opportunities.”

Fiat Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne declined to comment on any of the specifics of the allegations Thursday, but said the company has a “deep commitment to thorough investigation and the timely remedy of safety defects. ... We will not be satisfied until we firmly re-establish the trust our customers place in us.”

In a Detroit News interview earlier this month, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said: “Twenty recalls are a problem — 10 million vehicles. There’s a pattern here of things we’re concerned about. And they weren’t just little things — they were big things including major safety issues related to fire, door latches that could open up when people were driving. It’s not just, ‘Oh, they were late on something.’ If they didn’t start, it was late, it means all that time people are at risk. And they told us something different.”

Fiat Chrysler acknowledged it did not meet the 60-day requirement for notifying owners of new recalls in five cases. But it said all but one were completed within four days of the deadline — and one within 12 days.

NHTSA announced the unprecedented July 2 hearing to allow Fiat Chrysler to explain its handling of auto safety recalls. The highly unusual action came after NHTSA raised sweeping concerns about Fiat Chrysler’s conduct in auto safety issues, saying it has failed to recall enough vehicles, send notices to owners fast enough or ensure that dealers repair enough vehicles.

NHTSA has called Fiat Chrysler’s recall completion rates for the June 2013 recall 1.56 million older Jeep SUVs linked to more than 70 fires unacceptable — only about 20 percent complete.

Last month, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said the automaker wanted to work more closely with NHTSA.

NHTSA says Fiat Chrysler took seven weeks to identify what vehicles were linked to an airbag recall “lagging far behind other manufacturers recalling vehicles for the same issue.” NHTSA has sent letters to Fiat Chrysler on several occasions urging faster action on safety campaigns.