The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched an investigation of five vehicles in response to complaints that keys in the ignition switch can be knocked out of the "run" position, leaving the vehicles without power and, potentially, airbags.
Sound familiar? It's exactly the sort of problem that's plagued General Motors since February. Only this time, the vehicles were made by Chrysler.
The investigation comes in two parts, one brand new, the other a possible expansion of a previous recall. Together, they affect 1.2 million vehicles in the U.S.
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Probe #1: The Chrysler vehicles being investigated for the first time are the 2006-2007 Jeep Commander and 2005-2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee. According to NHTSA, "Complaints allege the driver's knee can contact the ignition key fob/chain and cause the ignition to be turned to the off or accessory position. If this occurs, the vehicle's air bags may not deploy in the event of a frontal crash."
So far, NHTSA has received 32 complaints about the problem, and at least one fire has been linked to it. No injuries or fatalities have been reported, though. Should this investigation lead to a recall, it would affect roughly 525,000 vehicles.
Probe #2: The other part of the Chrysler investigation involves the 2008-2009 Dodge Journey, Dodge Grand Caravan, and Chrysler Town & Country. Three years ago, 2010 models of those vehicles were recalled for ignition switch problems, and now, NHTSA believes that the flaw may go further back.
The problem affecting these models is slightly different from the one affecting the Commander and the Grand Cherokee -- though to drivers, the effect is essentially the same. NHTSA explains:
"[W]hen the vehicle is initially started and the ignition key is released from the START position, a spring force rotates the key back to the RUN position. However, in some instances, the switch may over-travel leaving the ignition key between the RUN and ACC position. While in this intermediate position, harsh roadway conditions or driver interaction with the ignition key can cause the switch to move to the ACC position which may disable the frontal air bags in a crash where deployment is warranted."
To complicate matters, NHTSA notes that owners of some 2010 models have been experiencing this problem after their vehicles were repaired.
All told, NHTSA has received 23 complaints about the problem in 2008 and 2009 models, though no reports of accidents, injuries, or fatalities have been filed. A recall would affect some 700,000 vehicles owners in the U.S.
NHTSA's investigation process has three major steps. The probes described above are in stage one, the Preliminary Evaluation, where NHTSA staff work with the automaker to assess the nature of the alleged problem. If the issue appears to be widespread, the investigation moves to stage two, the Engineering Analysis, where engineers inspect affected vehicles and attempt to recreate the problems in labs. The third and final step would be a recall of the affected vehicles.
We'll keep you posted on how these probes progress.