Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has been dragging its feet when it comes to safety problems, or so claims the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in a new document released ahead of a July 2 public hearing on the issue.
The statement by federal regulators follows admissions by the automaker that it has been slow to handle repairs to vehicles covered by a recall linked to numerous vehicle fires. And it appears to be part of a broader crackdown on automotive safety in the wake of record recalls that saw more than 60 million vehicles impacted due to defects last year.
"NHTSA has tentatively concluded that Fiat Chrysler has not remedied vehicles in a reasonable time and has not adequately remedied vehicles," the federal safety agency said in a document posted on its website ahead of a hearing to determine whether FCA met federal rules on properly reporting defects and then making repairs.
Under orders from NHTSA, the Michigan-based carmaker recently provided 5 million pages of documents and acknowledged that it failed to meet the government-mandated timetable for notifying owners of a defect on five separate occasions. FCA officials have also admitted that only a small percentage of the vehicles involved in a recall of millions of Jeeps due to a fire risk have so far been repaired.
Separately, a federal appeals court this week reversed a ruling by a lower court and ordered Chrysler to stand trial in a case involving the deaths of two people that were allegedly the result of a minivan unexpectedly slipping into reverse inside a garage. Rose Coats, 75, was pinned between the vehicle and the frame of the garage door. Her husband, 83-year-old Roy Coats, died of a heart attack after being knocked down by the vehicle.
Chrysler had attempted to block the hearing NHTSA scheduled for July 2 to look into its response to safety problems, a statement from the carmaker saying the company was enacting new measures to improve its response to problems.
These “reflect a deep commitment to thorough investigation and the timely remedy of safety defects,” said a Fiat Chrysler spokesman, who added that Fiat Chrysler “will not be satisfied until we firmly re-establish the trust our customers place in us.”
NHTSA and Fiat Chrysler have been on an apparent collision course for several years. Two years ago this month, the Euro-American automaker said that it would fight a federal order to recall millions of Jeeps due to what the government claimed was a risk of fire in the event of a rear-end collision. For its part, FCA officials insisted the vehicles posed no more risk than comparable products on the market. At the last minute, however, they agreed to make the fix, NHTSA in turn reducing substantially the number of vehicles the recall would cover.
But that didn’t help smooth things over. And the relationship between the carmaker and car regulators worsened when it became apparent that only a small fraction of the Jeeps still covered were actually being fixed.
The hearing next month was originally scheduled to focus on FCA’s handling of 20 individual recalls. The feds have now added another two campaigns to the list, which now covers 11 million vehicles. The recalls involve a wide range of defects, including not only fuel tank problems, but airbags, axles, door latches and ignition switches.
What happens next is far from certain, but NHTSA has been increasingly intolerant of industry delays and mistakes, issuing hefty fines against a wide range of manufacturers including BMW, General Motors, Toyota and FCA. It has also been probing suppliers linked to safety problems, notably Japanese manufacturer Takata. Defects with its airbags have already forced the recall of 34 million vehicles produced by 11 automakers.
The U.S. Justice Department has also stepped in. It levied a $1.2 billion fine against Toyota for mishandling issues with so-called unintended acceleration. The DOJ is also moving forward in a criminal probe involving GM’s handling of an ignition switch problem that has so far been blamed for more than 100 deaths. While it is unclear if any individuals will be charged in the case, GM is expected to face significant fines.