As was widely reported yesterday (e.g., USA Today, Bloomberg, LA Times), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sent Chrysler a letter earlier this week asking it to recall the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty because they “performed poorly when compared to all but one of the 1993-2007 peer vehicles, particularly in terms of fatalities, fires without fatalities, and fuel leaks in rear end impacts and crashes.” Specifically, the NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation said:
In our tentative view, there is a performance defect and a design defect.
The performance defect is that the fuel tanks installed on these vehicles are subject to failure when the vehicles are struck from the rear. Such failure can result in fuel leakage, which in the presence of external ignition sources, can result in fire.
The design defect is the placement of the fuel tanks in the position behind the axle and how they were positioned, including their height above the roadway.
(Spaces added for clarity.) The NHTSA notes that, because of the defects, passengers “have burned to death in rear impact crashes, there have been fires (without fatalities) in these vehicles from rear impact crashes that have, or could have, led to deaths and injuries.” Compared to similar SUVs, the Grand Cherokee and the Liberty had roughly twice as many fatalities per million registered vehicle years (MRVY), a standard measure for vehicle safety over time. When it came to non-fatal fires, the Grand Cherokee was almost ten times as likely to be involved in a fire than similar vehicles, and the Liberty was nearly sixty times as likely.
In the face of that evidence, Chrysler said “no, we won’t recall it.” They put out their own paper claiming “NHTSA used an incomplete and unrepresentative group of comparison vehicles” and arguing that the fatal crashes weren’t representative because they all involved unusually high speed crashes. They also complained that the NHTSA hadn’t recalled other vehicles with higher MRVY rates of fatal rear-impact crashes with fire.
There’s a lot to learn from this battle.