Jeep SUVs and Commonsense Design
Common sense ought to count for something, even in the corporate culture of Detroit automakers. And most of the time, it does. For instance, common sense dictates that an automaker should not place the fuel tank someplace where it’s likely to get hit—because then the tank could leak, and a fire could result. Responsible automakers should have learned this lesson from the Ford Pinto, a notoriously dangerous vehicle of the 1970s in which Ford placed the fuel tank behind the rear axle. Unsurprisingly, the Pintos were susceptible to catching on fire when struck in the rear. If the Pinto wasn’t enough to teach the lesson, automakers should have learned about keeping fuel tanks safe from the 1970s and ‘80s General Motors C/K pickups, in which General Motors mounted the fuel tanks on the sides of the vehicles outside the frame rails. Unsurprisingly, the trucks were susceptible to catching fire when struck in the side.
Both common sense and experience dictate that a fuel tank should be placed where it isn’t likely to be damaged in a collision—not behind the rear axle, as with the Pinto, or outside the frame rails, as with the older C/K pickups. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of vehicles sold in the United States, at least since the 1990s, have followed this basic design principle. In particular, you’d think that Chrysler (maker of Chrysler, Jeep, and Dodge vehicles) had gotten this lesson—as early as 1978, as this internal memorandum indicates, Chrysler had taken note of the controversy surrounding the Pinto and reached the commonsense conclusion that “locating the fuel tank ahead of the rear wheels appears to provide good protection for the tank.”
Which makes what Chrysler did with its Jeeps all that much more mysterious. For some reason, when it came time to locate the fuel tank on the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokees, and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberties, Chrysler placed the fuel tank behind the rear wheels and next to the rear bumper. The consequences were unsurprising: these Jeeps are susceptible to catching fire when hit from behind.
Why Chrysler placed the fuel tank in such an obviously unsafe location is a mystery. All over the United States, Jeeps that are stopped at traffic lights or slowing to make left turns are in danger if another driver doesn’t stop in time. Rearend collisions that should be minor can turn into raging fires in which people are burned or killed. Even drivers of non-Chrysler vehicles may be caught up in the flames.
Despite mounting evidence of the problem—i.e., mounting of injuries and deaths—Chrysler kept selling its SUVs with fuel tanks mounted behind the rear axle. People are starting to notice. These Jeeps are now the subject of a federal investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—which has formally asked Chrysler to recall some of these Jeeps on the basis of safety. Private citizens have taken action, creating webpages and starting petitions aimed at getting the Jeeps off the road. The nonprofit Center for Auto Safety has taken up the issue. Others who have been burned in wrecks that should have been minor, or who have lost loved ones as a result of Chrysler’s inexplicable design, have taken the issue to the courts.
Look for these Jeeps when you’re out driving. There are millions on the road, and the fuel tank is easy to spot. In the picture below, borrowed from the Center for Auto Safety’s website, the fuel tank has been painted white for purposes of the crash test (it’s normally black). When you spot the fuel tank of one of these 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokees, or 2002-2007 Jeep Liberties, ask yourself this question: did this make common sense?