Ford Motor is recalling more than 200,000 model year 2004-2005 Ford Freestar and Mercury Monterey minivans because the torque converter can fail without warning leaving no driving power, increasing the risk of a crash. The Ford safety recall is expected to begin in the second quarter of 2012, after the company procures replacement parts. At least 65 complaints about the problem, going back to the last decade, prompted NHTSA in 2009 to initiate a series of requests for warranty and customer complaint data.
The new world of the web directly provided NHTSA with enough owner complaints to prompt and bolster its investigation, making it less dependent on automaker supplied data. It’s also likely the ‘Toyota effect’ was in play; one that came about at a newly vigorous NHTSA, after the safety agency levied record fines against Toyota for covering up safety defects. At the time the Ford investigation was underway, critics were asserting NHTSA was the ‘lapdog’ of the auto industry at Congressional hearings.
Last December Ford’s Field Review Committee approved “a field action to be conducted as a Safety Recall to avoid a protracted dispute with the agency.” Ford had maintained for years there was no real world proof of a problem, only two vague accident reports. By this time the NHTSA probe had been upgraded to an engineering analysis, one stop short of a recall for a safety related defect.
In an unusual acknowledgement of the Ford recall (11S25 or 12V-006) just made public, NHTSA said Ford made assertions – also unusual in my experience – in its required defect filing that are untrue and violate federal safety regulations.
“We note that your report states that ‘Ford has not determined that vehicle immobility caused by torque converter malfunction in these vehicles constitutes a safety defect. Ford is not aware of any reports pertaining to this condition where customers allege they were unable to maintain control of their vehicle . . . Ford has decided to conduct this field action as a Safety Recall, despite our belief that this condition does not present an unreasonable risk of accident or injury. NHTSA does not agree with this statement,” said Jennifer Timian Chief, Recall Management Division, Office of Defects Investigation Enforcement at NHTSA.
The acknowledgment/rebuke went on tell Ford that its owner letter must include specific language acknowledging a defect related to motor vehicle safety exists without disclaimers or this is a violation of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act. NHTSA also said “If you send any owner notification letters to owners containing such disclaimers, the agency will take appropriate action for your violation of 49 CFR 577.8 and 577.9.”
Ford Motor did not respond to requests for comment and clarification.