After a recent article about consumer groups alleging Tesla is using deceptive marketing with regards to Autopilot, CleanTechnica stalwart Steve_S mentioned in a comment that the press is all over Elon Musk and Tesla at every opportunity but seems to give traditional automakers a pass when it comes to their failings. He pointed out that FCA — otherwise known as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles — has just recalled 4.8 million vehicles for a fault in their cruise control system that may prevent it from shutting off properly. Imagine if Tesla was facing such an issue!
CleanTechnica doesn’t usually pay much attention to the world of gasmobiles. We’re not Autoblog or Jalopnik. Our focus is on cars with motors, not engines. We don’t even have a category on our WordPress dashboard that covers this topic.
A quick Google found Steve_S was absolutely correct. On Friday, May 25, right before the long holiday weekend when millions of Americans will take to the highways, Fiat Chrysler announced that it is recalling 4.8 million vehicles built since 2014 because there is a chance the cruise control system in those cars won’t shut off if the driver taps the brake pedal or presses the Cancel button on the steering wheel.
Below is the relevant portion of the announcement. (Note: emphasis is in the original.) The list of models affected by the recall can be found at the bottom of the recall notice. Only vehicles with gasoline engines and automatic transmissions are affected, the company says.
FCA US LLC is recalling an estimated 4.8 million U.S.-market vehicles to upgrade software in their Powertrain Control Modules. The upgrade addresses an unlikely sequence of events that would compromise cruise-control functionality. In response to driving conditions such as varying road grades, cruise-control systems automatically initiate acceleration, as needed, to help vehicles maintain driver-selected speeds.
In certain vehicles, if such an acceleration were to occur simultaneously with a short-circuit in a specific electrical network, a driver could be unable to cancel cruise-control. However, if this sequence of events were to occur, cruise-control acceleration can be overpowered by the vehicle’s brakes.
The vehicle may also be stopped by shifting it into neutral and braking accordingly. Regardless of the mitigation strategy, the vehicle may be placed in park once it has stopped, at which point cruise-control is cancelled.
FCA US is unaware of any related injuries or accidents involving the affected vehicles, which span six model-years and account for more than 200 billion travel miles.
‘Notwithstanding the extraordinary circumstances that must exist before a customer would experience a problem, we are taking this action because we are fully committed to vehicle safety,’ says Mark Chernoby, Chief Technical Compliance Officer and Head of Vehicle Safety & Regulatory Compliance – NAFTA.
‘We have a remedy and a widespread network of engaged dealers who are preparing to deliver service,’ Chernoby adds. ‘We urge customers to follow the instructions on their recall notices.’
The remedy will be provided free of charge. FCA US will begin alerting affected customers as early as next week so they may schedule service appointments.
The Company advises affected customers to avoid using cruise control until their vehicles are equipped with the upgraded software. The recall … is limited to vehicles equipped with automatic transmissions and gasoline-powered engines.
Additional vehicles are being recalled in Canada, Mexico and certain markets outside the NAFTA region. Some markets outside the U.S. and Canada are also recalling certain Fiat Fremont CUVs, a platform-mate of the Dodge Journey.
Affected customers will be contacted accordingly. As in the U.S., customers driving the above vehicles are advised to avoid using cruise-control.
OK. So you are driving along in your FCA-built car with the cruise control on. You tap the brake because traffic ahead has slowed but your car continues on its merry way, oblivious to your desire to shed speed. What do you do? Quick. What DO you do? Do you call the FCA helpline for advice? Do you ask your passenger to do a quick search for “FCA cruise control failure” on a smartphone? If you don’t have a plan within a few seconds, you are a passenger aboard a 5,000 pound machine with a one-way ticket to disaster.
Google lists news reports on this subject by the Wall Street Journal, CNN, CNET, Digital Trends, The Verge, Motor 1, and Reuters. It also has a link to a helpful video from Consumer Reports uploaded the same day as the announcement showing people just how to deal with this situation if it happens to them. Good for CR for being right on top of this. Also on Friday, NHTSA issued a statement urging people driving cars with the suspected defect not to use cruise control until their cars have been inspected by a licensed dealer and repaired.
Okay. That’s the news. What does it mean to you and me?
- First and foremost, it is a warning to all of us that electronic stuff can fail. As we sail blithely into the brave new world of autonomous driving, that may be cause for concern in the minds of some.
- The news media seems to be doing a decent job of getting the word out, although few have taken FCA to task for this failure. For sure, none of claimed FCA is going to go bankrupt over the issue.
- The probability of this happening is slight. A component of the powertrain control module has to short circuit first before bad stuff happens. FCA doesn’t say how often that occurs or how they discovered the problem.
- Tesla automobiles can have defects in their software or firmware corrected via over-the-air software updates. FCA vehicles — and those from almost all major manufacturers — don’t/cannot go that route. But an OTA update isn’t going to fix a short circuit.
- FCA made this announcement on Friday before a holiday weekend. In the world of spin doctoring, that is precisely the time when bad news gets injected into the news cycle. The hope is that it will become buried under a torrent of other news over the weekend, people taking time off and watching sports, and then be forgotten about by next Tuesday. Was the timing deliberate?
- How many people will be quick enough to think, “Oh, my brakes are stronger than my engine. I’ll just tromp on the brake pedal, bring my car to a stop, and shift to Park to cancel my balky cruise control?”
- While motoring headlong into a cluster of cars ahead, how many people will seize the gear shift and calmly select Neutral? And how many will select Park, Reverse, or a lower gear instead, destroying the transmission. Will FCA cover that?
- Same situation. The driver actually finds Neutral. The cruise control is still whistling down to the engine room for more power. Result? Bent valves are the best case scenario. A connecting rod exiting through the engine block is more likely. Is FCA going to step up with a new engine?
- Same situation. The driver elects to turn off the ignition. Now the car has no power brakes and no power steering. If the driver tries to swerve away from impending disaster, the steering wheel may lock, causing a complete loss of control of the vehicle. Not a happy scenario.
Those are just a few thoughts that come to mind. If you have others, please share them with us.