When we hit the road in Dallas, we have to be prepared for things to get a little hairy ("Big D" was named the 9th most dangerous city for drivers in a 2016 study). Of course we must pay careful attention to our own vehicles as well, lest some feature we take for granted decides to quit in a dangerous way. Seems like every time we turn around now we're seeing recalls about some cars with faulty seatbelts and others having shaped charges packed into their steering wheels.
Another vehicle--Fiat Chrysler's 2017 Pacifica minivan--is coming under scrutiny after several customers have reported that they "shut off" on drivers at unpredictable moments. There's no recall yet for these vehicles, but just to make sure it isn't all quietly swept under the rug, let's talk about the situation at hand.
What's Going On?
More than 50 drivers have reported to the NHTSA that their 2017 Pacifica minivans spontaneously lost power while they were traveling. Obviously this poses a tremendous hazard, both to the drivers themselves and to other vehicles on the road. One motorist reported that his brand-new minivan died on a busy highway and he was forced to inch it over to the shoulder, narrowly avoiding being hit by a semi truck.
Contemporary drivers haven't had any practice strong-arming a steering wheel, and there's no chance that the lanes of a California highway is a great place to start. It's fortunate that the car needs only to be stopped, put in park, and restarted to be road-worthy again, but given that the malfunction can happen at virtually any time, that's not much comfort.
So far the issue has only hit a small percentage of Pacifica owners: Since the minivan's release in 2016 over 155,000 have been sold, and with only 50(ish) reports on the books, that's only a small fraction of one percent of the units in circulation. Additionally, no injuries or fatalities have been reported and no crashes have been directly blamed on the problem (though in instances of vehicular shutdown it may only be a matter of time). Frustratingly, dealers who have worked with vehicles affected by the alleged issue have so far been unable to recreate it, as reports vary widely about when and under what circumstances the malfunction happens. I mention these facts to say that I don't want to stir up widespread panic--just be aware that a mysterious bug in the Pacifica's system has been noted and doesn't appear to have a ready fix available. So far it seems like a betting man can cruise from point A to point B without enduring power outages on the road, but 50 or more instances of vehicular shutdown aren't negligible.
Despite their currently-bloodless record with the Pacifica malfunctions, Fiat-Chrysler faces pressure from worried consumers and advocacy groups to issue a recall so the problem can be investigated and fixed. The company so far has indicated that it's keeping a close eye on the reports, but believes drivers aren't in immediate danger as airbags and seatbelt pretensioners aren't compromised.
If You Feel A Sense of Déjà Vu...
...That's because the last several years have been plagued by reports of General Motors vehicles that shut off entirely while the vehicles were in motion. That issue was traced back to a faulty ignition switch the automaker put in its smaller passenger cars, causing the vehicles to switch off and making their airbags (monitored and activated by electronic sensors) inert. This critical flaw led to at least 124 deaths when power brakes failed and cars crashed, failed airbags not deploying. The federal investigation of GM cost the company $900 million to settle, and civil settlements with crash victims are projected to cost another $600 million. The company's recall involved over two and a half million vehicles.
Even though the Pacifica hasn't been flagged as dangerous yet, Fiat Chrysler's already no stranger to the NHTSA's intervention. In 2015, the agency fined the automaker $105 million for failing to notify vehicle owners of their models' recalls, as well as delaying urgently-needed repairs, in 23 separate instances that cumulatively covered 11 million vehicles. Jeep, a Fiat Chrysler brand, has had several such recalls.
So What's the Takeaway Here?
Right now it's just something to look out for if you can glance out your window and see a 2017 Pacifica in your driveway. I hope it never gets any further than that, but the pragmatist in me thinks that might be a little too optimistic. When a car shuts down on a driver going 70 miles an hour, and the loss of power means neither power steering nor power brakes work, it only takes one instance of stopped traffic ahead to create a multi-car pileup.
In the interest of fairness, I should repeat that nobody has been hurt, and that the problem hasn't been reproduced in controlled settings yet--I just have to emphasize that word "yet." If one of these alleged shutdowns does cause injury, Fiat Chrysler will have nowhere to hide. The slew of reports currently being lodged with the NHTSA will definitively show that they were aware of the problem long before it began to cause injuries, and that they elected to wait until someone was hurt before they took any action.
From a logistics standpoint, I get it: Recalls are issued as a reaction to proven "adverse incidents," which is a remarkably clinical way to say "high-speed crashes." From the company's point of view, trying to round up 155,000 units when they can't even recreate the problem in a lab isn't economically sound. It isn't that they disbelieve the drivers' reports exactly, only that they can't easily determine a course of action without any proof of their own. Unfortunately, that proof may take the form of an injurious or even fatal crash if someone's Pacifica powers down on a busy interstate.