Fixated on Floor Mats

Last month, NHTSA kicked a two-year-old investigation into unintended acceleration in Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan vehicles up to an Engineering Analysis. The suspected defect – floor mats that can entrap the accelerator pedal. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Analysis:

“A heel blocker in the floor pan provides a platform that may lift an unsecured mat into contact with the pedal. Ford introduced new pedals as a running change early in model year (MY) 2010 vehicles. Analysis of complaints received by ODI and Ford show elevated rates of pedal entrapment incidents in MY 2008 through early 2010 production vehicles. Incidents typically occur following hard pedal applications to pass slower traffic or when merging into faster traffic. Drivers allege continued high engine power after releasing the accelerator pedal and difficulty braking, including reports that the incident was controlled by shifting to neutral or turning the engine off. Drivers and service technicians reference observing evidence of mat interference or note unsecured Ford or aftermarket all weather floor mats in post-incident inspections.”

This action was followed by a high-profile $17.4 million civil penalty that the agency levied against Toyota for failing to launch a timely recall for floor mat interference involving Lexus RX350 and RX450h vehicles. This was a NHTSA-influenced recall of mysterious origins since the Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaire complaints didn’t seem to support a floor mat interference defect trend (see A Defect Remedy Delayed) – although the Lexus RX has certainly been plagued with all manner of sudden acceleration complaints.

These two events sent us digging through the recall and investigation archives to get a better handle on the greater context. There seems to have been an awful lot of floor mat-related brouhahas in the last few years. It seemed odd that floor mats – which exist solely to provide a barrier between muddy shoes and the carpeted floor pan – should suddenly be so troublesome. In the old days, rubber floor mats were rarely secured with retention clips, as they are now. In one of its responses to the 2010 Ford Fusion Preliminary Evaluation, the automaker reminded NHTSA:

“…Ford (and most of the automotive industry) began installing floor mat retention systems many years ago to hold floor mats in place to minimize the potential for floor mat interference with an accelerator pedal, even in the absence of any Federal or industry standards. Today, a driver’s side floor mat retention device can be found on virtually all vehicle models sold in the United States that have standard or optional floor mats.”

But, as unintended acceleration incidents continue to plague vehicles with electronic throttle controls, the hunt for an external, mechanical cause seems to have taken on a greater urgency.  

Consider this: From 1960 to 2004, the agency undertook six floor mat pedal entrapment investigations out of a total of 4,789 ODI defect probes. Over a seven-year period, from 2005-2012, the agency conducted 10 floor mat investigations out of a total of 704 defect investigations. Automobile manufacturers recalled more than 1.6 million vehicles for floor mat interference prior to 2005. In the last seven years, nearly 2.7 million vehicles have been recalled for floor mat interference. The vast majority of these vehicles are produced by Toyota, which prior to introducing electronic throttle control, never launched one floor mat recall.  Something tells us that Ford will join them just to shut down the Engineering Analysis. And if that’s all it takes to make NHTSA stop looking at throttle defects on the Ford Fusion, we’d go for it. According to the consumer complaints to the agency, the Fusion has much bigger and more-expensive-to-recall speed control problems. 

Antony Anderson, the U.K.-based automotive electronics expert scoffs at NHTSA’s current focus on floor mats.

“The flying floor mat hypothesis is a disguised way for automobile manufacturers to transfer the blame for sudden accelerations from the electronics to drivers,” he says. “In my opinion, automobile companies should have carried out a functional analysis of safety critical engine control electronics from the outset and incorporated a totally independent failsafe mechanism to protect against un-commanded wide open throttles. Then there would have been very few sudden acceleration incidents.”

“In other fields this is standard practice,” he continues. “Large steam turbines are provided with over-speed protection; electrical drives, escalators and elevators have emergency stop buttons; motorcycles and stock cars have kill switches. Only in the automobile industry is it assumed that emergency protection devices are unnecessary. At present the driver is made the fail safe for the failed electronics and in the event of an un-commanded wide open throttle is expected to brake against full engine power. This is bad engineering practice and represents a serious evasion of responsibility by the auto industry for the safety of the motoring public.”

Fusion Confusion: Is Pedal Entrapment Really the Fusion’s Main UA Problem?

NHTSA opened a Preliminary Investigation into floor mat entrapment on May 28, 2010, based on three consumer complaints of pedal entrapment. If one checks the dates of the Fusion floor mat complaints against the date on the Opening Resume, it’s pretty clear that this Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaire (VOQ), submitted to the agency on May 25, 2010, got them going:

“Several weeks before the incident, I removed the driver’s side all-weather floor mat (the factory-developed optional one) from our 2010 ford fusion hybrid and tossed it in the trunk. In the days leading up to this incident, the car had been to the body shop and the car wash. As near as I can tell, an attendant at one of those places must have discovered the mat in the trunk and “helpfully” reinstalled it.    But I didn’t notice this right away. When commuting to work on April 16th, I pressed the accelerator to the floor as I moved into a much faster traffic lane. Upon completion of this maneuver I eased up on the gas, but the pedal stayed down and the car kept accelerating, unintentionally at this point. At first I wasn’t sure what was going on, but after about 3 or 4 seconds I heard a “click”, the pedal returned to normal and the car slowed. It was then that i thought of the all-weather floor mat, and when traffic cleared I tried another experimental full-throttle dab to see if I was correct. It happened again (but I was ready for it), with the pedal releasing on its own after a few seconds, just like before. At this point, I was careful not to disturb the mat’s position so i could take video of the problem once I arrived at work.  Once in the garage, and with the engine off, I was able to replicate the floor mat-throttle interference on-camera. As before, the pedal stayed stuck for about 3 seconds after i pressed it to the floor. I was able to repeat this several times. But in one trial the stuck throttle persisted for over 30 seconds, with the pedal staying stuck despite vigorous stamping in an effort to free it. The only way it came loose was by lifting my heel which, in the normal driving posture, had apparently been pinning the mat down and making it less flexible. With the heel pressure removed, the mat bent up out of the way and the pedal began a slow return.     A YOU TUBE VIDEO LINK IS AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST”

Well, no mere consumer is going to knock the Kings and Queens of Floor Mat Defects over at ODI off their collective throne. YouTube video, indeed.

Ford was less than enthusiastic about launching a recall based on the small number of complaints, and pointed out that “Ford’s evaluation of mat and pedal contact indicates that the pedal tends to be temporarily restrained in a position that results in only a part-throttle opening, where engine power output is less than full and braking effectiveness is minimally affected.

This is in contrast with Ford’s understanding of the nature of mat and pedal interference in vehicles recalled by Toyota in which the mat had a propensity to entrap the accelerator pedal at wide open throttle (WOT) where braking effectiveness could be significantly diminished because of the loss of vacuum assist.”

Fast forward two years, and the incidences had piled up. In the Opening Resume of its Engineering Analysis, ODI listed 16 VOQ complaints in support of its contention that the Fusion, and its sister vehicles, the Mercury Milan and the Lincoln MKZ had a wandering floor mat problem.

The good news is: Among the 16 complaints, nearly half –7 – unambiguously report that they observed the floor mat entrapping the accelerator pedal. For example, a driver from Lubec, Maine reported to the agency:

“Floor mat as installed at dealer jammed against accelerator. Driver was able to stop the vehicle and correct the problem by unstacking deep weather floor mats from regular floor mat.”

The other nine? Here we begin to see ODI’s creative accounting skills. Some are merely ambiguous. Floor mats were not mentioned at all, but perhaps it’s a possible case of floor mat entrapment based on the description of the incident.

Then there are VOQs  in which the driver was quite clear that the floor mat was not the cause. Here’s the narrative from the only Lincoln MKZ complaint included:

“Was proceeding down a ramp to enter highway traffic. I put my foot to the floor to merge into traffic and the vehicle continued to accelerate even after I took my foot off the gas. I put my foot on the brake and the vehicle continued to accelerate. I was unable to slow down to any great extent as the engine was racing. The accelerator pedal seem to be off the floor (not stuck to the floor) at the time. I would estimate that my speed was 85 mph when I put the shifter into neutral and stopped the car in the breakdown lane. At this time the engine was reving so high, I thought for sure the engine would blow. Before I had the presence of mind to shut the engine off, the engine stopped reving and went back to an idle. The brakes were smoking but there did not seem to be any other damage. I checked the floor mat and it was not near the accelerator pedal.”

How does that incident wind up in the floor-mat-did-it pile?

Here’s one that does not fit the floor mat caught the accelerator pedal:

“The contact owns a 2009 Ford Fusion. The contact was driving approximately 20 mph when the vehicle abnormally accelerated. The contact placed the transmission lever into neutral and shut off the vehicle. She was able to restart the vehicle and drive at a very low speed until she reached home when she began to smell smoke. The dealer was notified and the contact was awaiting an investigation. The contact did not inform the manufacturer nor was the vehicle repaired. The current mileage was 5,781 and the failure mileage was 5,773.   Updated 05/05/11

Twenty mph? Hmm.

Caveat: We do not have any other information about these incidents other than the public file. It is possible that the agency obtained further documentation. The last time we raised this issue in a Toyota Unintended Acceleration Defect Petition, the agency responded to our Freedom of Information Act request by asserting that all they had was in the public file. But, tell us, how could you affirmatively prove that the floor mat was the cause of an unintended acceleration if someone in the vehicle did not witness it at the time?

It was clear in reading through 161 speed control VOQ complaints for the Ford Fusion alone, that the Fusion has a number of accelerator-related problems. For example, not included in the agency’s alleged floor mat complaints are 48 unintended acceleration complaints, alleging surges at low speed, and full blown accelerations at full speed.

Almost twice as many drivers, about 92, complained to NHTSA that the Ford Fusion suddenly decelerates – on the highway. Complaints like this were typical:

“Today was the fourth time my accelerator failed to work on my car.  It has happened on the highway doing 65 and at low speeds.  The dealer tells me it is the throttle body and that they are familiar with the problem.  They also tell me it will happen again.  Ford motor refuses to fix the problem under warranty until the dealer can reproduce this intermittent problem or its computer systems confirms a problem.  Neither could be done when I took the car to the dealer for repair.  The internet demonstrates others with this exact same problem.  I am worried that this problem will reoccur in an inopportune time causing an accident and injury.  When it occurs, the accelerator stops working, but the engine is still running.  A wrench light appears on the dash.  I am able to coast to a stop, but must put the car in park and restart the car for the problem to temporarily resolve.  Ford seems to be aware that this problem exists, but is refusing to make the warranty repair.”

This failure happened at just 20,000 miles. It’s affecting the 2010 and later model-year Ford Fusion vehicles, big time. Why isn’t NHTSA asking Ford why the Fusion quits on the interstate, illuminates a malfunction light on the dash and prevents the driver from accelerating? 

What Else NHTSA Isn’t Investigating

On August 19, Lauri Ulvestad’s 2011 KIA Sorento took her on a wild ride along the north-bound corridor Interstate 35 in Harrison County, Missouri, near Bethany. State troopers escorted the Ames, Iowa woman for 60 miles as she dodged sedans and 18-wheelers at speeds that topped out at 115 mph. Her unintended acceleration event, captured by a camera mounted on the Missouri State Highway Patrol vehicle, was a top news story for two days, as Ulvestad made the rounds of morning shows recounting the terrifying experience. Nobody but Kia got a look at that Sorento, because the company bought it back, and the Ulvestads signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of the deal. The automaker said that it could not duplicate the event, and that it was “an isolated incident.”

According to consumer complaints to NHTSA and news reports out of South Korea, Hyundai, which owns Kia, is no stranger to unintended acceleration events in its vehicles. The problem not only shows up in consumer complaints to NHTSA, but news reports in South Korea, where the automaker is headquartered. 

We contacted NHTSA to determine if the agency was investigating this incident specifically.

The agency responded:

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is committed to ensuring the safety of vehicles on America’s roads. The agency is aware of the incident, is monitoring complaints and other data closely, and will take appropriate action as necessary.”

Translation: No.

We used to think of floor mats as the low-hanging fruit for NHTSA. But really, do we need the weight of a federal agency thrown against manufacturers on the issue of floor mats? We aren’t saying that floor mats don’t interfere with accelerator pedals or that it isn’t dangerous when they do. But any driver who observes a floor mat jamming the accelerator can simply remove the mats – you don’t need a certificate from a technical school to see the problem or solve it.

There are five unambiguous, observed floor mat interference complaints for the Ford Fusion, 48 unintended acceleration complaints not attributed to floor mats and 92 complaints related to sudden deceleration. So when you cast the energy NHTSA has and continues to invest in the Fusion floor mat investigation, for example, against the totality of the Fusion speed control complaints, you realize that floor mats aren’t merely low-hanging; they’re like the fruit that’s rotting on the ground.

Why doesn’t NHTSA reach up to solve a problem worthy of investigation, instead of reaching down?