By Bernie Woodall
DETROIT (Reuters) - U.S. safety regulators are demanding an explanation for what they say is Chrysler's slow pace in making fixes to protect rear fuel tanks in older model Jeep SUVs even though the regulators have accepted the automaker's remedy in the case of lower-speed crashes.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said on Wednesday that at Chrysler's current pace it would take nearly five years to fix all of the affected Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Liberty SUVs involved in a recall announced last June.
In response, NHTSA has issued a "special order" signed by its chief counsel, O. Kevin Vincent, mandating that Chrysler produce documents to explain the pace of Chrysler's recall efforts. The documents must be presented to the NHTSA by July 16.
The affected vehicles are the Jeep Grand Cherokee for model years 1993 to 1998 and Jeep Liberty from 2002 to 2007.
In June 2013, Chrysler recalled 1.56 million Grand Cherokee and Liberty SUVs after initially resisting NHTSA's request for the recalls.
At the time, Chrysler said placement of a trailer hitch assembly would protect occupants in the event of low- or medium-speed rear-end crashes.
Chrysler said its suppliers are working six days a week to make the trailer hitches and that customers will be notified when it is time to schedule service of their SUVs.
NHTSA has long maintained that the placement of the fuel tanks behind the rear axle has left them less protected in the event of rear-end crashes, and could cause fuel leaks and fires. At the time of last June's recall, NHTSA had linked 51 deaths to the problem.
"NHTSA took the unusual step of reconstructing real-life crashes of the affected vehicles after the company failed to provide enough evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of its remedy," the regulator said in a statement. It added that it accepts the fix, but questions the rate at which Chrysler is applying it.
NHTSA's testing took place from last August to January, and in mid-January it told Chrysler it accepted the trailer-hitch remedy.
While Chrysler and NHTSA agreed to make the recalls last June, Chrysler waited until Dec. 6, 2013 to pick a supplier for the trailer hitches and did not order them until late January. The first of them were produced in mid May.
In explaining the delay, Chrysler said: "To accommodate the high-volume production required for this campaign, Chrysler Group had to find and enlist multiple new supplier partners to supply volume of this part that far exceeded normal demand."
Vincent summed up NHTSA's concerns in the special order to Chrysler: "For many owners, a recall remedy deferred by parts availability easily becomes a defect remedy denied."
(Additional reporting by Ben Klayman; Editing by Leslie Adler; and Peter Galloway)