U.S. closes review of 4.9M Fiat Chrysler vehicles

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will not open a formal investigation into 4.9 million Fiat Chrysler vehicles that safety advocates said were prone to an electronic glitch that could lead to engine stalls, air bag non-deployments and fires, saying the request was not warranted

In September, NHTSA began a review after the Center for Auto Safety in August petitioned for a formal investigation for Chrysler vehicles starting in the 2007 model year. The center said failures of totally integrated power module have resulted in “incidents of engine stall; air bag non-deployment; random horn, headlight, taillight, door lock, instrument panel and windshield wiper activity; failure of fuel pump shutoff resulting in unintended acceleration; and fires.” The petition cited 70 complaints.

The review covered a variety of 2007-2014 Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep SUVs, trucks and vans. Fiat Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne said the automaker had no comment on the decision to close the nine-month review.

Fiat Chrysler did recall 188,000 2011 Dodge Durangos and Jeep Grand Cherokees equipped with 3.6-liter and 5.7-liter engines. According to Chrysler, those vehicles may experience a failure in the fuel pump relay within the power module which can result in a no-start or stall condition.

NHTSA noted that that in addition to that, “there are numerous complaints alleging bizarre and unexplained headlight and taillight failure, windshield wiper activity, instrument panel failure, and door lock problems” that the center said could be linked to the problem.

After more than nine months of review, NHTSA said it concluded that further investigation was not warranted.

NHTSA harshly criticized the petition: “Any allegation that a running fuel pump can, absent extremely idiosyncratic failures of many other systems, cause a vehicle to accelerate on its own demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of basic automotive engineering.”

But Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, noted that Fiat Chrysler issued two recalls for the module after it filed its petition.

In February, the company recalled 467,480 SUVs worldwide to install a new electronic circuit to address fuel pump issues. The recall covered 2012-13 Dodge Durangos and 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokees equipped with 3-liter diesel engines sold outside North America. The fuel-pump relay is located inside the totally integrated power module, which also helps manage other vehicle functions. Fiat Chrysler said none of these other functions, including air bag deployment, is affected by the fuel-pump relay.

Ditlow noted that under the law NHTSA must make a decision on whether to open a formal investigation in 120 days — but it waited more than 300 days in this case. The agency has not met the legal deadline in a number of petitions in recent years.

“NHTSA creates a number of strawman arguments such as defining unintended acceleration in the classic Toyota sense,” Ditlow said. “Many of the complaints we cited involved the fuel pump continuing to run with the operator unable to turn off the engine.”

NHTSA said there was “no merit” to the suggestion that the issue could cause air bags to fail to deploy.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com