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McClatchy-Tribune  07/17/2014 12:01 AM ET
Chrysler tells NHTSA it will have Jeep all necessary trailer hitches ready by March [Detroit Free Press :: ]

July 17--Chrysler on Wednesday said a supplier will be able to produce enough trailer hitches to reinforce the gas tanks for 1.56 million older Jeep SUVs by next March in a letter it provided to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Auburn Hills automaker was responding to a letter it received from the regulatory agency on July 2 that asked the automaker to explain why it has taken more than a year to begin repairs on 2002 through 2007 Jeep Libertys and 1993 through 1998 Grand Cherokees.

On Wednesday, Chrysler said its manufacturer will be able to produce all of the trailer hitches needed to reinforce the gas tanks of the SUVs by March-- 21 months after it first agreed to conduct a safety campaign. Chrysler plans to send letters to customers next month saying the first batch of trailer hitches are available.

The Jeeps in question have rear-mounted fuel tanks that the safety agency said put the vehicles at a higher risk for rear-end explosions.

Chrysler has insisted that its Jeep SUVs meet required safety standards but agreed to conduct a "safety campaign," rather than a recall, to satisfy NHTSA's concerns. The agency and Chrysler agreed that the trailer hitches would reduce the risk of fires in low-speed rear-impact collisions.

"It is important to note that the manufacturing of this quantity of hitch assemblies is out of the norm," Chrysler said in its response to NHTSA. "Hitch assemblies are considered an accessory item which would normally not be required in such large numbers for production. For this reason, there is not a large amount of open or idle high manufacturing capacity in the market."

Chrysler has said it will begin telling customers that it will have trailer hitches available as early in August and told NHTSA Wednesday it expects to complete the safety campaign by March 2016.

NHTSA expressed frustration earlier this month with Chrysler's slow pace and asked asked why the automaker has hired only one supplier to make the trailer hitches, and why it took so long for production to begin.

Last August, NHTSA conducted crash tests of the SUVs with trailer hitches after Chrsyler declined to conduct its own tests. NHTSA concluded that they do improve safety in low-speed crashes.

According to NHTSA, Chrysler chose a supplier in December and did not begin making the trailer hitches until May, nearly 12 months after the automaker agreed to the safety campaign.

"It is common practice at Chrysler and, indeed, within the automotive industry to rely on a single supplier for critical components, even for field actions and parts that are common across multiple vehicles," Chrysler said in its response.

Chrysler said it is often more efficient to work with a single supplier than multiple suppliers and said the quality is typically both better and easier to monitor.

NHTSA also is asking for numerous documents, including internal financial projections of the program's estimated cost.

Chrysler said it expects the campaign will cost about $151 million.

Carl Tobias, a professor of law at the University of Richmond, said he is shocked at Chrysler's slow response and its apparent defiance of the agency, especially in light of the scrutiny General Motors has faced regarding its ignition switch recall.

Bob Andrews of Marlborough, Mass., said he has been asking his local dealer to install a trailer hitch on his 1998 Grand Cherokee since October. Andrews said a Chrysler representative at a call center for the safety campaign strongly emphasized what the automaker has insisted all along: that Chrysler is conducting a voluntary safety campaign, rather than a recall.

"They look at it as though they are doing me a favor. They are doing nothing right now," Andrews said.

Contact Brent Snavely: 313-222-6512 or Follow him on Twitter @BrentSnavely.


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