Over the weekend, Chinadaily [via CarNewsChina] reported that China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine had halted imports of Jeep Wranglers due to what was reported as
fires [caused by] a problem in the vehicles’ automatic transmission and related systems.
And though for some this story’s value may begin and end with the ironic humor value of China recalling unsafe American products, there’s more to this than meets the eye. As it turns out, NHTSA has investigated a suspiciously similar transmission-related fire risk in Wranglers, and made Chrysler fix it. What’s not clear is why China-bound Jeeps don’t appear to have received the upgrade that US regulators required for American-market sales.
According to a Chrysler letter to NHTSA obtained by TTAC [PDF here], an estimated 161,450 Wranglers from model years 2007 and 2008 were recalled towards the end of 2009 in order to address reports of transmission-related fires during off-road driving. In its letter to the US auto safety regulator, Chrysler laid out the following timeline for the recall:
Beginning in October 2008, Chrysler received a report of a failed transmission from an overheat condition that resulted while driving off road.
Subsequent engineering analysis confirmed that while operating a vehicle under rigorous off road conditions, a vehicle’s transmission fluid temperature will elevate.
Exceeding the limits of a vehicle beyond reasonable intended usage over an extended period will cause the transmission fluid to expel, and may allow it to come into contact with a hot exhaust component and cause a fire.
July of 2009, China Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) initiated contact with Chrysler inquiring about 3 incidents allegedly resulting from transmission fluid overheat (2 determined to be non-related, I unverified not available for inspection).
On September 13,2009, NHTSA’s Office ofDefects Investigation (ODI) opened a Preliminary Evaluation (PE09-037) to investigate allegations of transmission overheat conditions.
An investigation ofJK vehicles concluded that there is no design related defect that would cause the transmission to overheat under normal operating conditions.
Warranty data and field reports support that a small number of transmission warranty is due to an overheat condition caused by extreme and/or abusive driving conditions.
There are only a few field reports alleging transmission failures resulting from elevated temperatures.
The prior Jeep Wrangler (TJ) body style provided a transmission temperature warning lamp.
A warning system to alert the customer when transmission fluid has reached a critical operating temperature would significantly reduce potential for transmission failures.
There has been no reported transmission failures related to overheat during normal operating
Chrysler is not aware of any injuries or fatalities as a result of this condition.
What’s most interesting about this chain of events is that NHTSA opened an investigation in the wake of Chinese government action over the defect, forcing Chrysler to recall and inspect 94,025 Wranglers by the end of last year, some 91,868 of which were repaired [per a Chrysler follow-up filing with NHTSA, in PDF here]. Now, we don’t know exactly what actions Chrysler took to repair imported Wranglers in China, but the fact that none of the three vehicles involved in incidents at the time of the July 2009 investigation were found to have related defects indicates that little or nothing was done to address this issue in the Chinese market.
Here in the US, the fix wasn’t complicated. As Chrysler had admitted, the TJ Wrangler had a transmission temperature warning guage, and this was the “fix” that was agreed upon for the US market. Since there is no way to guarantee safety in all off-road uses, including a warning when transmission temperatures rise makes good sense. Thus, Chrysler told NHTSA that it
will conduct a safety recall to install a “HOTOIL” message in the Instrument Cluster and a chime indicating an elevated transmission fluid condition. Chrysler will also provide owners with an Owner’s Manual Addendum stating the purpose of the “HOTOIL” message and chime along with instructions with a Caution and Warning statements regarding elevated transmission fluid temperature conditions.
So, if all Wranglers built for the US market received an extra light in the dash to warn of elevated transmission temperatures, why are export-market versions (at least for China) not equipped with the same instrument cluster? Would it not ultimately cost more to have two separate instrument assemblies for domestic sales and exports? And surely Chinese regulators would recognize that this fix would allow drivers to avoid any transmission-related fires, so why halt imports? One conspiracy-minded possibility: this could be tied to China’s trade war-motivated accusation of subsidies and dumping by GM and Chrysler.
We will continue to dig into this story to see if, in fact, Jeep builds its export-market Wranglers without the NHTSA-mandated fix built into all US-market Wranglers. If you own an export-market Wrangler from 2007 or later, or if you work on or assemble Wranglers, please share your expertise in the comments section. Though Chrysler isn’t obligated to comply with US regulations for its export-market products, last year’s Toyota recall scandal proved that failing to address safety concerns on a global basis can create huge PR headaches.