DETROIT — The U.S. government’s highway safety agency says it will hold a rare public hearing in July to determine if Fiat Chrysler failed to notify customers and fix safety problems in 20 recalls covering more than 10 million vehicles.
Among the recalls is a contentious one covering 1.56 million Jeeps with gas tanks located behind the rear axles. The biggest involves almost 3 million cars with air bag inflators that can potentially rupture and injure a car’s occupants.
The agency could order Fiat Chrysler (FCAU), formally known as FCA US LLC, to buy back or replace vehicles if it finds the company failed to fix defects, according to a statement issued Monday.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said some consumers complained that they weren’t notified of the recalls, while others said dealers lacked repair parts and didn’t have service appointments available.
“To prevent crashes, injuries and deaths, manufacturers need to fix these defects,” agency administrator Mark Rosekind said on a conference call.
Such public hearings occur rarely, and a single hearing for one manufacturer on multiple recalls is unprecedented, said Allan Kam, a former NHTSA enforcement attorney.
Fiat Chrysler, he said, likely wasn’t giving the agency satisfactory answers in conversations before it set the hearing date. He expects the company to settle the matter before the hearing to avoid bad publicity.
NHTSA has been feuding with Fiat Chrysler for more than two years over the Jeep gas tank recall. The tanks offer little protection in a rear-end collision and are responsible for at least 75 deaths nationwide, according to agency documents.
But Rosekind told reporters that an examination of the company’s recalls found a broader problem. In one recall, a recommended fix didn’t work.
“It’s really across the board, which is why we’re looking at all 20 of them,” Rosekind said. “There were already communications telling them to improve their performance, and we didn’t see that direction followed.”
NHTSA last scheduled a public hearing in 2012 and ordered a motorcycle maker to pay customers for the value of their vehicles in that case.
In 2011, the agency threatened a hearing about Ford Motor Co. (F) pickup trucks, but Ford recalled the trucks before the hearing could take place.
NHTSA will hold the hearing July 2. Witnesses and the automaker will be able to present evidence. The agency also ordered Fiat Chrysler to provide information on the pace of repairs of several recalls.
Chrysler said in a statement that the completion rate for all of its recalls exceeds the industry average. The company said it would cooperate fully with regulators.
In the Jeep recall, NHTSA data shows that by April Fiat Chrysler had repaired only a fraction of the Jeeps, far below the average completion rate of 75 percent in the 18 months after a recall starts. But Rosekind said Monday that the agency will not reopen the investigation that led to the Jeep recall.
Fiat Chrysler had fixed just 4 percent of the Grand Cherokees and 27 percent of the Libertys that were recalled.
Chrysler has maintained that the Jeeps are as safe as comparable vehicles built during the same time.