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Jeep recall: unintended consequences

by David Zatz on

Chrysler has issued two recalls and one customer care action in response to government requests. 1993-98 Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Libertys are getting a voluntary recall; those with Mopar or factory hitches will get a checkup and, if needed, a free upgrade.  Those with no hitch or an aftermarket hitch will get a free trailer hitch. A similar “customer care action” is being taken on 1999-2004 Grand Cherokees: those with aftermarket hitches will get an inspection and, if needed, an upgrade. Those with factory hitches or no hitches will not get an inspection or upgrade or free hitch.

News analysis

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has pressured Chrysler into voluntarily recalling huge numbers of old Jeep Grand Cherokees and Jeep Libertys. The “repair,” adding a hitch or replacing an aftermarket hitch, might or might not have an effect; the Jeeps already perform to tougher fuel-leakage standards, according to actual accident data, so no “repairs” seem to be needed.

One culprit of at least one incident was an aftermarket hitch. Thus, the recall involves giving out free hitches, and replacing aftermarket units; that will ensure that all these vehicles have a proper hitch, and prevent owners from buying poorly designed units that can come back and kill them later (the odds of this happening are still very remote indeed; there have been fewer than 40 accidents over millions of miles driven). This is being done for image above all, to make the story “go away,” but  it does create a dangerous precedent.

We are not going to get into how many vehicles caught fire due to aftermarket hitches, or whether the gas tank placement was ill-advised — just the question of this voluntary recall, and its free replacement of aftermarket hitches coupled with an inspection of Mopar units (presumably to make sure they were installed properly).

The aftermarket is not regulated to the same degree as the car itself, partly the result of common sense (aftermarket equipment companies are far smaller and usually unable to spend the money for testing and certification; and far fewer people buy aftermarket items than new vehicles), and partly the result of SEMA’s lobbying. This difference in regulation is one reason why automakers charge more for “the same” parts, and, incidentally, is why some Mopar parts last ten years while the parts-store equivalents last ten days (and why a Mopar headlight actually focuses the light correctly, while a cheap replacement often doesn’t). It’s why you can buy Chinese wheels that fail before a year is up.

The danger here is that Chrysler is being held accountable for problems caused by aftermarket equipment. The company is, replacing aftermarket hitches with its own, at the company’s expense, even though it wasn’t Chrysler that chose to buy a cheap hitch made without any concern for crashworthiness.

The “slippery slope” argument of “now they’ll want all old cars to meet new standards” was illusory, and was based on the notion that Jeep was being held to newer standards. That’s not the case; NHTSA hasn’t given much evidence that it’s using any standards at all. That was the brunt of Chrysler’s official, detailed reply to the investigation, though there was little evidence of their research in the white paper given to the press. No, this precedent will not mean that your 1948 Plymouth will go back to the dealer to get shoulder belts and airbags and side impact door beams. For one thing, as Bill Cawthon has said, the law limits recalls to vehicles ten years old or less.

recall crash energy

The bad precedent here is that automakers will be held liable for problems caused by aftermarket parts. Did a police radio get loose during a high speed chase and fall under the brake pedal? Install Mopar units in every police car, at Dodge’s expense! Did Wrangler buyers install oversized wheels that wobble when driven on the highway? Install Mopar wheels in every Wrangler, free!

Dodge pursuit cars are unusual in that their factory-installed equipment packages have been crash-tested. That is a first for police gear, and a major step forward for law enforcement, albeit one that has not been heralded in the popular press.

That is the precedent that has been set here. When an aftermarket kit is faulty, Chrysler’s new responsibility is to install their own gear on every car that doesn’t already have it, replacing aftermarket trinkets ‘n’ trash with crash-tested, endurance-tested parts, at their own expense, so owners won’t install poorly made, poorly designed gear.

This isn’t the way it should work. Part of the rationale behind not regulating aftermarket gear is that buyers know they are making a tradeoff between price and safety. If people want to take the risk of death to save a hundred dollars, that is their choice, and that should remain their choice. Buyers of new cars get safety built in; if they want to make it unsafe to save a few bucks, they can. (Though perhaps the law could give insurance companies the right to raise premiums or deny coverage based on these choices.)

This leads one to wonder about the tunnel vision of NHTSA and the popular press. When reviewing these accidents, one can draw many conclusions. Perhaps there should be more regulation of the aftermarket — not as rigorous as the automakers, but at least some review of new parts that can cause safety issues by a board of engineers, perhaps through a private setup like Underwriters’ Laboratories. It could even be optional, but if you don’t buy a reviewed part, you could not make a complaint to NHTSA or sue an automaker or collect automotive insurance payments for anything even vaguely related to the part.  Perhaps we should be looking at driver training, which was clearly an issue in some of these deaths, or brake performance of new Class 6-8 trucks. But now that the schema has become ingrained, no problem seems to require driver training, driver testing, larger-scope vehicle inspections, or some responsibility for safety assigned to anyone but the automakers… even if the other solutions would be cheaper, more effective, and more rational. No, we all have to stick to the established story line.

Regardless, making automakers responsible for the crap that buyers shove onto their vehicles seems… wrong.

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