DETROIT (AP) — Fiat Chrysler has admitted that it missed legal deadlines to notify customers in five safety recalls, a pattern that could bring a fine from U.S. safety regulators.
But the company, in documents posted Thursday, said it's taking steps to improve recall completion and notification rates and shouldn't be subjected to a July 2 public hearing on its safety performance scheduled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Last month, the agency, clearly frustrated, scheduled the rare hearing to air problems with 20 different Fiat Chrysler recalls covering 11 million vehicles. The agency said it has complaints from customers that they weren't notified of recalls or that dealers lacked parts to make the fixes.
The missed deadlines were revealed in Fiat Chrysler's response to questions from the agency as the company seeks to avoid what could be an embarrassing public airing of its safety problems.
Automakers must notify customers within 60 days after telling the government about a recall. Four of the five Fiat Chrysler misses were four days or less, but one was 12 days late. Company spokesman Eric Mayne said owners in that case had already been notified, and the missed deadline happened when the company decided to change the recall repair.
But Clarence Ditlow, head of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, said the agency should slap the company with a big fine. "It's clearly a pattern, which why NHTSA is holding a public hearing," he said. "NHTSA should fine Chrysler five times for missing deadlines in each of the five recalls because people can die while Chrysler delays."
The five recalls include four from 2014 and one from this year. Some involve vehicles that can stall while being driven or ignition switches that can slip out of the run position, abruptly shutting off the engine. The agency can fine an automaker up to $35 million.
In its response, Fiat Chrysler said changes it has made to increase recall completion rates and monitor progress make the hearing unnecessary. The company says its overall recall completion rate of 77 percent of vehicles 18 months after a recall starts is better than the industry average of 75 percent.
The company also says it has worked hard to reach owners of recalled cars. In the case of 1.56 million older Jeep SUVs with vulnerable gas tanks mounted behind the rear axle, the company has tried 4.5 million times to reach owners. But Fiat Chrysler said that some of the recalled vehicles are 22 years old, and it's difficult to find owners through state registration databases because addresses may not exist.
Fiat Chrysler also said its representatives have been attending vehicle auctions, buying back some of the 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys and 1993-1998 Grand Cherokees in the fuel tank recall to get the off the streets. The company also is investigating the possibility of sending a recall message directly to the radio or infotainment screens in newer vehicles. The feature could begin as early as next year.
The company resisted the Jeep recall at first, but agreed to the trailer hitches in a compromise with top Transportation Department officials. The tanks have little protection in a rear-end collision and are responsible for at least 75 deaths nationwide, according to agency documents.
In paperwork filed in April, Fiat Chrysler said only 4 percent of the recalled Grand Cherokees and 27 percent of the Libertys had been repaired — nearly two years after the recall was announced. The company says the Jeeps are as safe as comparable vehicles made at the time.
Fiat Chrysler said it searched tens of millions of records to answer NHTSA's questions by a Monday deadline, and that it has involved senior management in recall decisions and monitoring. It also has used email, postcards, websites and robocalls in an effort to reach owners of recalled vehicles.
But Deputy NHTSA Administrator David Friedman, in an interview on Tuesday, said Fiat Chrysler's answers, however extensive, aren't enough to cancel the hearing. The company's performance in the 20 recalls "raises red flags" for the agency, and that's why the hearing was scheduled, he said.
"The goal of the public hearing is to consider their evidence, but also to consider the evidence and experience of people who own those vehicles," he said. The hearing will get all of the facts "to determine whether or not there's a pattern of improperly moving forward with recalls, improper notification, improper repair."