Fiat Chrysler Recalls Millions of Vehicles for Cruise Controls That Might Not Disengage

Michael GrossmanJune 01, 2018 5 minutes

Fiat Chrysler is once again making headlines with a sizable and serious recall.

While previous recalls involved everything from fire hazards to disabled seatbelt pretensioners, ranging in scope and severity, the newest recall apparently involves a software bug that could keep a vehicle's cruise control engaged even when the driver tries to cancel it. That's right--rolling merrily along at 75 mph on one of America's many highways and byways could be even more dangerous than usual, because you might not be able to stop.

Who Makes The Defective Product(s)?

The affected models of vehicle are made by Fiat Chrysler of America ("Fiat" or FCA), the large conglomerate that owns Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge, Ferrari, Jeep, Lancia, Maserati, Ram and SRT. Some of those makers don't operate domestically (I'd never heard of Lancia before researching this), and it's pretty rare to see a Maserati on my daily commutes, but we've all seen plenty of Dodges, Rams, Chryslers, and Jeeps on the road.

It's possible that the faulty parts or software were created by a third party on Fiat's behalf, but that information is not readily available.

What's the Matter With The Cars?

According to the recall it's possible for the affected cars, trucks, or SUVs' electrical systems to short-circuit when they accelerate in cruise control mode. If that short occurs, the cruise control can't be deactivated conventionally by tapping the brakes or using the "CANCEL" button.

This is a huge problem. Cruise control's main purpose is driving long distances at highway speeds in excess of 60-70 miles per hour. Trying to slow down from mile-a-minute speeds and finding out too late that you can't is potentially disastrous for everyone.

The (relatively) good news is that aggressive braking can still stop these runaway vehicles. Tapping the brakes is usually enough to cancel cruise control, but in this case a driver would need to floor them to decelerate the car through brute force.

One Dodge owner in Olathe, Kansas reported his experience with the defect to Fiat. According to the account, his rented Dodge Journey was traveling around 70 mph with cruise control on when the windshield wipers activated and the SUV's throttle seized up. Sensing car trouble, the driver tried to disengage the cruise control only to find that it wouldn't turn off. The engine stop button (a feature on many newer vehicles that replaces the turn-key ignition system) also failed to respond. Luckily he was able to stomp the brakes and fight against the vehicle's automatic forward motion, steering the SUV onto the shoulder. According to the report, "...It was still running at an engine speed to support 70 mph and fighting the brakes," which "smoked significantly" as he wrestled the stationary car into Park. That action canceled the cruise control.

While the report's ending isn't exactly happy, at least it doesn't involve injury or death. Not every incident may end as well.

Which Specific Products Are Affected?

So far 15 Jeep, Dodge, Chrysler and Ram models spread over six model years could be affected. All the vehicles have gasoline engines and automatic transmissions.

Fiat and the NHTSA supplied a list of potentially defective makes and models:

  • 2014-2019 Ram 1500 pickup
  • 2014-2018 Ram 2500/3500/4500/5500 pickups and chassis-cab trucks
  • 2015-2017 Chrysler 200
  • 2014-2018 Chrysler 300
  • 2017-2018 Chrysler Pacifica
  • 2015-2018 Dodge Challenger
  • 2014-2018 Dodge Charger
  • 2014-2018 Dodge Journey
  • 2014-2018 Dodge Durango
  • 2014-2018 Jeep Cherokee/Grand Cherokee
  • 2018 Jeep Wrangler

Whew! That's quite a list. Everything from sedans to SUVs to pickup trucks is represented, and anywhere from a few to all of the listed vehicles may suffer from the cruise control defect.

How Widespread Is the Problem?

According to Fiat and the NHTSA, roughly 4.8 million vehicles in the U.S. alone are affected by the cruise control glitch. The company says models in Canada, Mexico, and other countries may also be affected, but they aren't sure which ones yet and can't provide estimates of how many might be in international circulation.

What Can Be Done About It?

The thing that makes the defect so dangerous is also the thing that should keep a lot of drivers from ever experiencing it: It only triggers through activation of cruise control, and even then it seems pretty rare. Depending on how they use their FCA vehicles, many drivers may never have a need to turn their cruise control on. It's not much help in the repeated stop-and-go traffic of bigger cities. Whether drivers are likely to use the feature or not, though, I would encourage them to visit a dealership for the software fix anyway. Better safe than sorry.

Fiat warns owners of any of the vehicles listed above not to use cruise control until they have taken them to a local dealer for a software update that supposedly will fix the problem. For those without the update the NHTSA has some advice for anyone caught by the cruise control issue: shift the car into neutral, forcefully apply the brakes and put on the handbrake until the vehicle rolls to a stop, then shift gears to Park to cancel the cruise control.

FCA encourages customers to get the update as soon as possible. Those with further questions can contact their local dealership or call Fiat Chrysler customer support at (866) 220-6747. The NHTSA also welcomes people to their Recalls page, where drivers can enter their Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and check for any outstanding recalls related to their individual vehicle.

What This Means

While I'm glad that FCA issued the recall before any documented injuries occurred, I can't really say that it caught this glitch "in time." After all, six years and millions of cars exist between when they started messing the programming up and when they finally copped to it.

In fact the more I chew on it, the more this recall seems kind of ridiculous. Fiat has had over half a decade to catch this potentially-deadly production error. Fortunately there aren't any reported injuries, but that may just be a reflection of a flawed reporting system. FCA wouldn't be the first or the last company to ignore adverse events to preserve the bottom line.

Fiat's not exactly a picture of wide-eyed naïveté about product defects, either. I've written before about vehicles produced under their corporate umbrella having serious flaws. The company might try to shift the blame over to whatever firm produced their cruise-control software or the electrical components that short out, but there's no way they can avoid blame entirely.

Cars are complicated machines, and because of that I think their manufacturers are often given a lot of slack by consumers. "Sure they might explode, but nothing's perfect, right?" Whether or not that public generosity is deserved, automakers aren't always held to the rigorous standards they should be, and they have a nasty habit of manipulating that. Heck, General Motors hid information about its faulty ignition switches for years, but even after a lengthy and costly class action suit it saw record-busting sales. The point is that despite being in an industry where production flaws have serious--sometimes fatal--consequences, Fiat's screw-ups could just be forgiven and forgotten unless they're appropriately called out.

The right people to do that are the people endangered by the defects. This cruise control issue may not have caused damages yet, but 4.8 million vehicles aren't just going to magically stop having the problem. Over 160,000 miles of highway crisscross America, and most of that is traveled at speeds that are exponentially more dangerous if a driver can't slow down or stop. As long as millions of cars, trucks, and SUVS might potentially barrel into one another from an inability to cancel their cruise control, Fiat might be found negligent for not catching and fixing the problem sooner (or avoiding it altogether).

I'll leave it to the various auto blogs to dissect what this recall will mean for Fiat's future, because my main concern is, and always will be, the the trusting people who operate these defective vehicles. For people hurt in a crash caused by the broken cruise control, the future could involve enormous medical bills, lost wages, and even chronic injuries that never fully go away, and that's only considering the people who survive the wrecks caused by this defect. When we read news about yet another automaker belatedly acknowledging yet another huge flaw in its production, we immediately consider the victims of that "oh by the way" philosophy. We hope that Fiat Chrysler gets its quality control in order--not for its reputation's sake, but for the safety of those who suffer unnecessarily from their un-caught mistakes.