Last week, a California judge decided to allow a class action lawsuit filed in December 2017 against Fiat Chrysler to proceed. The lawsuit, which could have major ramifications for carmakers, was filed in response to stalling issues with 2017 Chrysler Pacifica minivans that the plaintiffs allege were caused by known software defects.
The plaintiffs allege that Fiat Chrysler, despite numerous owner complaints about the Pacifica stalling out, concealed knowledge of defects in Pacifica’s power-train control module (PCM) to keep customers from having concerns about buying the vehicle.
Fiat Chrysler attempted to get the lawsuit dismissed, arguing that consumer complaints don’t prove that a vehicle defect exists or demonstrate that the company knew about the alleged defect a priori and concealed it.
The judge agreed with Fiat Chrysler on those points, ruling that the plaintiffs could not use consumer complaints alone as evidence of a defect. However, he pointed out that Fiat Chrysler had issued two technical service bulletins relating to Pacifica’s PCM software before the plaintiffs had purchased their vehicle, and two more following their purchase.
The judge ruled that there was sufficient evidence to believe it was “at least plausible” that Fiat Chrysler knew that there was a stalling problem with the vehicles before the plaintiffs bought them.
About a month before the lawsuit was filed, the Center for Auto Safety filed a petition with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration calling for an investigation [PDF] into the Pacifica stalling problem. The Center said it had fielded complaints from more than 50 owners of 2017 Pacificas who had “lost motive power at varying speeds,” ranging from sitting idle to traveling at 60 miles per hour. The petition asked the agency to rule that the stalling defect required a vehicle recall.
Interestingly, within a few weeks of the lawsuit and petition filings, Fiat Chrysler did announce a recall [PDF] of 154,000 U.S. nonhybrid 2017 Pacifica minivans because of potential engine stalling which could “increase the risk of a crash.” The automaker stated in its recall notice that, under a rare set of conditions, the power-train control module software “may cause an engine stall without warning, without lighting the Malfunction Indicator Lamp or setting any Diagnostic Trouble Codes.”
Fiat Chrysler went on to state that most cases of stalling occur at low speeds, while idle, or while negotiating a turn. Dealers, it said, will install a new software flash update to Pacifica power-train control modules for free.
The automaker’s admission that the error didn’t trigger any diagnostic trouble codes or a malfunction light vindicated those Pacifica owners who experienced stalling and brought their vans into their dealers to be fixed, only to be told that there was nothing wrong.
According to Fiat Chrysler’s own chronology [PDF] of its efforts, the automaker opened an investigation into the Pacifica stalling issue on 23 October 2017. It determined the root cause of the problem―a loss of crankshaft position sensor synchronization for roughly 150 milliseconds that was not being managed by the vehicle’s engine control software―in December 2017. The update to the control software will make it “less susceptible” to the problem, the company stated, implying that it may still occur in certain circumstances.
Intriguingly, the Fiat Chrysler chronology indicates the investigation was caused by a letter from a customer complaining about a stalling vehicle, but the automaker didn’t indicate why this particular letter caused the investigation to be launched, even though dealers received numerous customer complaints well before October. It may be that the letter came from a Pacifica owner who was also a lawyer and was involved in the filing of the Center for Auto Safety’s petition with federal regulators.
Perhaps the class action lawsuit will provide more specifics on what actually triggered the four previous technical service bulletins to update the Pacifica’s power-train control software. Those updates are at the crux of the legal questions regarding what Fiat Chrysler knew about the stalling defect and when it knew it. It will be interesting to see how these four bulletins are connected to the current PCM software update, especially if, as the lawsuit alleges, the previous engine control software updates were used by Fiat Chrysler to merely “mask” the Pacifica stalling problem.
If the plaintiffs win, the lawsuit could have serious implications for all automobile manufacturers. As of 2016, software-related recalls were responsible for some 15 percent of all vehicle recalls, a number that has been climbing rapidly over the past decade. The question that this lawsuit may help clarify is how soon automakers must disclose potential safety issues created by software bugs.
This is especially important in the case of transient software bugs like those responsible for the Pacificas’ stalling, which are extremely difficult to find and may not show up in the vehicles’ diagnostic systems. As software use in vehicles increases, further hard-to-replicate software-induced problems will occur, many potentially creating a crash risk. It may be time for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to revisit its recall process, which was developed with hardware defects in mind to take into account the unique automotive safety challenges that software errors pose.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.