Tag Archive | "US National Highway Traffic Safety"

NHTSA Admits Faults in GM Investigation

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration admitted Friday it made a series of errors in its handling of General Motors Co.’s delayed recall of 2.6 million cars with faulty ignition switches linked to 109 deaths and more than 200 injuries, reports The Detroit News. The federal agency pledged to make significant reforms.

NHTSA is bracing for what are expected to be scathing reports into the GM recall from the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General and Government Accountability Office. The safety agency released its internal findings in part to show it already was making significant reforms. NHTSA said it is making changes to spot defect problems earlier, and announced that a three-member team would advise the agency on its restructuring.

In two internal reports released Friday, NHTSA said it failed to hold the Detroit automaker accountable; didn’t understand alternate theories how the company’s air bags worked; and didn’t follow up on trends from its own data and investigation.

It acknowledged it missed numerous chances over nearly a decade to discover the deadly defect in 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small cars. In those cars, which since have been recalled, the key can inadvertently turn off the engine and disable power steering and air bags.

Still, the report places most of the blame on GM for failing to disclose problems to NHTSA.

In May 2014, NHTSA fined GM a record-setting $35 million for delaying the recall and GM had to agree to up to three years of intensive monitoring. GM CEO Mary Barra fired 15 and disciplined five after an internal GM report showed a “pattern of incompetence and neglect.”

GM said in a statement Friday, “We support the changes to NHTSA’s organization announced today and we will continue to work collaboratively with NHTSA toward our shared goal of improving automobile safety in all respects.

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said the agency was not disciplining or firing anyone as a result of Friday’s report. It was the agency’s most forthcoming admission that it shoulders some of the blame in failing to discover the defect. In testimony before Congress last year, NHTSA largely rejected responsibility.

Rosekind didn’t want to focus on blame, seeking instead to emphasize how to improve the system. “There is no single individual who can be blamed for the things that happened previously,” he said, adding there was no evidence that NHTSA employees intentionally failed to do their jobs.

Part of the problem is funding, Rosekind said. The White House proposed tripling NHTSA’s auto defects budget and doubling the number of staff assigned to it. But Congress has shown little interest in doing so.

‘Crucial first step’

Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said they were happy NHTSA is finally acknowledging its errors. “Unfortunately, for more than a decade, NHTSA failed to address the information and evidence it had in its own database linking defective ignition switch to fatal accidents,” they said.

The pair said NHTSA must “put in place permanent measures necessary to prevent another tragedy like this from ever happening again.”

Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, praised the self-assessment and said Congress must give NHTSA more funding.

He called it “a crucial first step toward restoring the integrity of the agency’s enforcement process and the ability to hold the auto industry accountable for defects that kill and injure … The assessment also sets into motion new internal processes to correct deficiencies in agency procedures that missed defects like GM ignition switch, Jeep fuel tank and Takata air-bag inflators.”

The Justice Department is nearing a decision on whether to pursue criminal charges against GM and impose a fine that could be in excess of $1.2 billion as part of a settlement that is likely to come by summer’s end. The Securities and Exchange Commission and 50 state attorneys general also are investigating.

The announcement comes ahead of a forthcoming report from the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General into NHTSA’s handling of GM’s ignition issues. That report is expected to harshly criticize the agency’s handling of the issues.

The Government Accountability Office also is investigating NHTSA’s handling of the recalls as part of a broader assessment of the agency’s performance sought by Congress.

In September, the House Energy and Commerce Committee sharply criticized NHTSA’s handling of the GM complaints between 2007 and 2014, saying it had made “inexcusable errors.” A committee report said that after NHTSA declined to open an investigation into air-bag failures in Cobalts and other cars in 2007, the agency was deeply reluctant to revisit that conclusion even after new crashes and reports came to the agency’s attention.

One of the NHTSA reports found the agency “did not hold GM accountable for providing inadequate information.” That was despite the fact that “GM’s responses often contained very little information and included invocations of legal privilege.” It said the agency did not “push back and request more information.”

Team to address changes

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Friday he is naming a three-person team that will spend the next year advising NHTSA on implementing changes outlined in the reports.

The team includes Joseph Kolly, director of the Office of Research and Engineering at the National Transportation Safety Board; J. Victor Lebacqz, former associate administrator for aeronautics research at NASA; and James P. Bagian, a former NASA astronaut who directs the Center for Healthcare Engineering and Patient Safety at the University of Michigan, where he is a professor at the medical and engineering schools.

NHTSA has long been criticized for being too cozy with automakers. But since Rosekind was confirmed as NHTSA’s new administrator in December, the agency has taken a much more aggressive approach to auto safety issues. At the same time, some senior officials have announced plans to retire.

NHTSA pressured Takata Corp. last month to declare 33.8 million vehicles with its air bags defective, announced it would hold an unprecedented July 2 hearing into Fiat Chrysler’s safety issues and prodded Ford Motor Co. to expand a door latch recall.

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Takata, U.S. Regulator Can’t Say How Many Cars May Have Faulty Air Bags

DETROIT – At least 400,000 of the 4 million replacement inflators for defective Takata air bags will need to be replaced again in U.S. vehicles, sources at the Japanese safety equipment maker and the U.S. safety watchdog told Reuters.

Another 500,000 of those parts appear to be safe, according to U.S. safety regulators, leaving the safety of more than 3 million replacement parts in question.

But no one seems to be able to tell owners with any certainty just how many vehicles may still contain defective original or replacement parts.

Takata Corp in mid-May told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that nearly 34 million air bag inflators in the United States have the potential to rupture, sending spraying metal fragments inside vehicles. At least six deaths and hundreds of injuries are linked to ruptured inflators.

NHTSA previously had identified problems with about 17 million Takata inflators.

But it is not clear how many vehicles are equipped with defective inflators, although the number appears to be far fewer than 34 million.

An unspecified number of vehicles have Takata air bags on both driver and passenger sides – and in some cases, both may be defective. In other cases, repair parts installed in those vehicles also may be defective.

Since Takata’s May 18 disclosure, eight of 10 automakers that use Takata air bags have either expanded earlier recalls or initiated a new recall, and one other has said potentially defective parts are covered by previous recalls.

But the companies collectively have added only 3.3 million vehicles to the recall roster since May 18. Neither Takata nor NHTSA can explain the disparity.

The confusion extends to how many vehicles with replacement parts will need to go back to the dealer for more repairs. At least one automaker partly addressed the issue on Thursday.

In a recall expansion notice posted on Thursday by NHTSA, Honda Motor Co, one of Takata’s largest air bag customers, said an unspecified number of owners who had replacement parts installed since September 12, 2014, “received an inflator of a different design, and therefore are not included in this recall.”

Honda told Reuters that it has installed 1.2 million driver-side replacement air bags since Sept. 12. The kits were assembled by Takata, using inflators “of a different, contemporary design,” made by Takata and other suppliers, the carmaker said.

A NHTSA official told Reuters on Wednesday that it was up to Takata and the carmakers to “demonstrate to us that the remedy parts are safe for the life of the vehicle.” A priority now is to determine which of the replacement parts “are suspect and need to be replaced” again, the NHTSA official said.

Earlier in the week, when asked how consumers would know whether a replacement part would last for the life of the vehicle, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind acknowledged that the issue was “confusing” and told lawmakers that owners should check with car dealers’ service departments.

Takata and its contract suppliers have been gradually ramping up shipments of replacement parts to automakers.

An estimated 400,000 of the replacement driver-side inflators use a potentially defective propellant wafer that is shaped like a batwing. “Those will have to be replaced again,” the Takata source said. That estimate was confirmed by the NHTSA source.

This year, about 500,000 replacement parts were made for Takata by outside suppliers, including TRW Automotive Inc and Autoliv Inc, according to the Takata source. The replacement parts from TRW and Autoliv use a different chemical from the Takata-made inflators.

“I don’t think we have any reason to suspect any problems with products from other suppliers,” the NHTSA source said.

By year end, Takata expects to provide at least 1 million inflators a month, of which about 700,000 will be made by TRW, Autoliv and others.

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Lawyers Say Fiat Chrysler Misleading Public, NHTSA

Lawyers for the family of a 4-year-old killed in a gas tank fire in a Jeep accused Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV of misleading the public and federal safety regulators, reports The Detroit News.

Last month, Fiat Chrysler asked a Georgia judge for a new trial after a jury in April awarded $150 million to the family of Remington Walden, who was burned to death when the SUV was hit from behind in March 2012. The 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee’s design had a plastic gas tank mounted behind the rear axle which ruptured and leaked gasoline, causing a fire.

“Despite the fact FCA killed Remington Walden by fire, and the jury so found, FCA still refuses to accept any responsibility or even express regret to the family and community,” said Jim Butler, a lawyer for the Walden family.

In April, the jury in Decatur County, Georgia, ruled that Fiat Chrysler was 99 percent responsible for Walden’s death, and that it acted with reckless disregard for human life in selling the Jeep to the family.

“FCA has tried to mislead everyone — the court, the jury, NHTSA, and the public,” said Jeb Butler, another lawyer for the family. “FCA should look in the mirror — its problem is the simple fact its product is indefensible, but at trial FCA tried to defend that product by making things up.”

Michael Palese, a spokesman for Fiat Chrysler, said the company hadn’t seen the response and had no comment beyond the company’s request for a new trial.

The April 2 verdict came nearly two years after Fiat Chrysler compromised with U.S. safety regulators and agreed to a scaled-down recall of 1.56 million older-model Jeeps with the rear-mounted tanks. The recall fix involves installing a trailer hitch assembly to give the tank some protection.

Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordered Fiat Chrysler to answer detailed questions about 20 recall campaigns — including the Jeep campaign — and ordered the automaker to attend a July 2 public hearing. NHTSA has repeatedly criticized Fiat Chrysler for not doing more to get recalled Jeeps repaired faster.

A Georgia judge will hear the bid for a new trial July 14.

Lawyers for Walden noted that Fiat and chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne have repeatedly said Jeeps with rear gas tanks were “absolutely safe.” The lawyers said the company has settled dozens of fire lawsuits; they argued that until the most recent case, the automaker had never gone to trial to defend the vehicles. In the Walden case, the parents refused settlement offers before trial, lawyer Jim Butler said.

Fiat Chrysler said the jury’s award of $120 million for the life of Walden and $30 million for his pain and suffering are “grossly excessive” and illegal under Georgia law. The company also contends the amounts are far higher than the largest awards in Georgia history that have been upheld on appeal.

In its motion, Fiat Chrysler said the $120 million wrongful death award is more than 11 times the largest such award upheld on appeal in the state. The $30 million pain-and-suffering award is more than four times larger than the largest upheld in Georgia.

Fiat Chrysler argues that the boy’s suffering was brief, and that previously, the largest pain-and-suffering award in Georgia was $7 million for a person who was hospitalized for months, paralyzed and endured severe pain. “A $30 million pain-and-suffering award for what plaintiffs acknowledge was at most one minute of suffering is irrational,” the motion said.

Federal documents show that at least 75 people have died in post-crash fires due to the tanks.

Chrysler has long contended that the Jeeps were no more dangerous than comparable SUVs built at the time.

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Marchionne Says He Doesn’t Plan to Testify at July Hearing

Sergio Marchionne, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s chief executive officer, said he doesn’t intend to speak at the hearing the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration set for July 2, reports Bloomberg Business.

“We have a person who is responsible for regulatory compliance,” he said on the sidelines of an event Tuesday evening in Detroit. “He’s much better briefed than I am.”

NHTSA on Monday scheduled a rare public hearing into how Fiat Chrysler is handling 20 recalls, covering about 10 million vehicles. NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said it was a pattern of potential violations, rather than a specific recall, that brought the unusual action.

NHTSA has become more aggressive after being criticized by Congress for failing to be more active before last year’s revelation that about 2.6 million General Motors Co. cars had a known ignition-switch defect that went unrecalled for years. Regarding Fiat Chrysler, the agency said it has had complaints from consumers about the absence of recall notifications, the lack of parts when people schedule repairs and “misinformation from dealers.”

Marchionne said Fiat Chrysler has tried to comply with the recalls but struggles, like all automakers, to get vehicle owners to care.

“We have worked as hard as we could to try and make the recalls work,” he said. “One of the things I cannot do is somehow force customers to come in and bring their cars. I just can’t. And the repair rates of some of these recalls are either at or above industry average.”

The auto industry, he said, will adapt to the new regulatory environment.

New Phase 

“We’re entering a new phase of regulatory oversight,” he said. “We need to work with the agency to determine the proper level of cooperation. The real issue is that the process of adjusting to this new regulatory environment is going to be painful. We’re not used to this.”

Fiat Chrysler shares rose 0.1 percent to $15.62 at 9:38 a.m. New York time. They gained 35 percent this year through yesterday.

FCA US, the Auburn Hills, Michigan-based unit of London-based Fiat Chrysler, owns the Chrysler and Jeep brands. It was given until June 1 to turn over documents about its recall progress and could face fines of $7,000 a day for failing to cooperate with NHTSA’s special order.

“The average completion rate for FCA US LLC recalls exceeds the industry average and all FCA US campaigns are conducted in consultation with NHTSA,” the automaker said Monday in an e-mailed statement. “The company will cooperate fully.”

Rosekind declined to give an industry average after the FCA statement. He said earlier he was unhappy with the completion rate of recall repairs for a fuel tank defect on some Jeeps.

NHTSA rarely schedules public hearings on recalls. The agency usually negotiates with automakers behind the scenes over the scope of a recall, timing and potential remedies. NHTSA’s last such hearing on a recall was in 2012, for a single fix by Wildfire Motors, a small motorcycle importer.

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