Ford Steering Problems Come into Focus

Headed to the top of the Early Warning Reporting charts with a bullet: 2012 Ford Focus steering failures. In the last four quarters, which includes the first half of 2012, there have been about 13 injury claims. Randy Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corp., who regularly trawls this data, says that it is unusual to see so many steering-related claims in the 2012 model year, given the total for this very large fleet – one of the top-sellers for 2012 – so far.

The 2012 Ford Focus, is an all-new redesign, with – you guessed it: Electronic Power-Assisted Steering (EPAS). Electronic Power Steering (EPS) is one of our favorite automotive technology advancements plagued with failures when introduced – just ask Honda, GM and Toyota. All three have battled EPS malfunctions. The latter two prompted defect investigations which prompted one Technical Service Bulletin and one recall. The EPS issue is yet another example of automotive technology advancing without functional safety standards and beyond the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s ability to regulate or enforce.

A Ford video on the Focus EPAS purrs about how the sensors achieve steering “that feels just right” and “helps keep you firmly planted and in control.” (Watch

Perhaps Ford's EPAS keeps drivers planted a little too firmly – once the steering goes, it’s pretty hard to turn the wheel, according to owner reports. Consumer complaints show that the problem is a right-out-of-the-box phenomenon, with drivers generally reporting that within a few minutes of starting operation, power steering fails and Steering Assist Fault displays on the dash. (There’s another category of high-speed wander-type complaints, too.) Some had their first loss-of-steering-control incident within the first week of ownership, and many have had multiple occurrences. The failure usually occurs at low speed, and yet, there are situations in which losing steering is mighty dangerous, like when turning into traffic. About 20 owners of 2012 Focus vehicles have lodged complaints with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrations. One West Virginia owner reported: “While backing out of a driveway the steering system failed. I rolled down a hill and into a wooded area. The system gave an indicator light of steering system failure and also the braking system did not engage. I lost complete control of the vehicle.”

The Malfunction Indicator Lamp display is a consistent feature of the failure, as reported by drivers. Despite this, many Ford dealerships, apparently, are sending customers away with a shrug of the shoulders, because the techs could not duplicate the problem. This defect, with no apparent root cause or repair, is also a great source of frustration for all of the Focus fanatics on the fan forums.

“I, too, have brought my 2012 Focus back for the 'steering assist failure',” writes one. “I have brought it back three times now. The first two times they claimed they had to clear and reset some codes. (????) and then this time around they had to replace a module (on a brand new car???? really????).”

There was commiseration across the globe, as one Aussie owner and a Focus owner from our neighbor to the North chimed in:

“Hey Guys, I'm in Toronto, Canada and having the same problems! It happened within a week of owning the car, and then a month later and then it happened two days in a row over the weekend.”

“I have had exactly the same issue with my brand new Focus in Australia, Intermittent power steering failure which resolved after restarting the car.”

The Blue Oval folks whose job it is to patrol the enthusiast forums to ensure things stay enthusiastic with smiley emoticons and a chirpy tone have been offering helpful advice such as:

“Intermittent issues can be very tough to diagnose, and the codes that were stored may not have pointed to a specific cause. That could be why it needs to be replicated. Be assured though, safety is always kept in mind with all concerns.”

Some Focus owners, however, lost patience with the safety-is-our-highest-priority script. Replied one such cranky consumer:

“Educate me on EXACTLY how SAFETY is a top priority when the code for power steering is being thrown, the tech's are SEEING the code, but then sending the driver on their way because they can't REPLICATE the issue.

Educate me on how it is NOT a safety issue when said person gets back out on the road, has a failure, and slams their car into a wall or another car full of children.

Please, EDUCATE me. I'm sure we ALL want to understand your line of thinking here. Because those cars should NOT be hitting the road again until the problem is SOLVED if safety was really a TOP PRIORITY.”

SRS has some of the same questions for you Ford engineers out there: If the “Steering Assist Fault” light is illuminated when the power steering goes out, why aren’t Diagnostic Trouble Codes being set, in some cases? If the problem does throw a code, why no fix? Sounds like multiple issues.

A few more questions: Will Ford issue a recall or will NHTSA open an investigation? Who’s going to go first?

Not that we expect all that much from either.

We were not so impressed with the agency’s handling of Toyota EPS problems. In May 2011, ODI closed its Preliminary Evaluation into complaints about the Electronic Power Steering in 2009 and 2010 Corolla vehicles, despite a total 918 complaints. The more disturbing VOQs described sudden turns to the right or left, with no apparent driver input and attempts to correct the steering are ignored, steering wheel lock-up; hard turns that initiate out-of-control spinning. ODI threw those out. Instead, it concluded that drivers’ concerns related to “the system operating as designed and do not involve failure of any steering system components;” and because Toyota offered to install a new re-calibrated EPS unit with a different steering feel.

GM knew that its Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 vehicles had a problem with its electronic power steering for at least 15 months before it did anything about it. Like the Focus, the GM vehicles would suddenly lose the EPS function in low-speed situations. (Take note Ford, GM told NHTSA that because it happened in situations where the vehicle was under way at less than 30 mph, the defect was no big deal.) In January 2009, it began an internal investigation into consumer loss-of-power assist complaints. By July, the company had isolated problem to a failure in the electric power steering motor. By November, GM was suing its EPS motor supplier, alleging that it had spent $30 million in warranty repairs to resolve consumer complaints that the system that “had excessive gear backlash, thereby causing the columns to rattle under certain driving conditions.” GM got around to its consumers in March 2010, after ODI had opened a probe.

We’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating: the U.S. fleet is migrating over to electronic systems in safety-critical functions –acceleration, braking, and steering -- with little regulatory guidance. There are no rules governing steering mechanisms. The only safety standards – FMVSS 203 and 204 – regulate the position of the steering column, so that occupants don’t impale themselves on it in a crash. The European Union and Great Britain have recognized the potential harm from EPS malfunctions and have enacted standards to ensure that drivers can still control their vehicles in their wake. No such luck for the consumers in the world’s number one Superpower.

Apparently, NHTSA believes it’s better for the automakers to experiment on their customers, work out the bugs post-sale, let the technology mature and the troubled vehicles age out of the fleet, and then pass a new rule.

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