NHTSA, Ford and CO Poisoning: Sickening

If your local police department has a fleet of Ford Explorer Interceptors, it’s probably trying to determine if the vehicle – an Explorer modified for law enforcement use – is sickening its officers during long periods of idling or hard acceleration. But if you are the civilian owner of one of these vehicles, keep a close eye on the noises Ford or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration makes about a recall.     

In July 2016, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation opened a probe into reports of occupants smelling exhaust odors in the occupant compartments of 2011-2015 Explorers. “Complainants expressed concerns about exposure to carbon monoxide.” At the time, the agency had tallied 154 complaints. What happened in the Preliminary Evaluation was – up until two weeks ago – anyone’s guess, because other than the Opening Resume and an Information Request letter to Ford demanding a response by August 24, 2016, nothing else was ever added to the public file.

In the space of a year, the complaints piled up. Ford reported fielding 2,051, while 791 drivers complained to NHTSA’s Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaire hotline. Some of those complaints were getting mad press because they came from police departments from Auburn, Mass. to Austin, Texas. Ford owns a large share of the law enforcement vehicle market. Introduced to the fleet in 2012, the Interceptor accounted for 60 percent of Ford police vehicle sales in 2013 – more than 14,000 police SUVs. By 2015, Ford was bragging in a press release that the Interceptor “quickly became America's best-selling police vehicle – which has helped Ford capture 61 percent market share through June 2015.”

Inconveniently for public safety, and Ford’s bottom line and brand ID as the go-to automaker for law enforcement, at least five officers lost consciousness, were hospitalized for CO exposure or crashed their SUVs after huffing the cabin air of their Interceptors.  For example, in September 2015, a Newport Beach, California officer “passed out while driving his Interceptor,” swerving “across two lanes of oncoming traffic, nearly hitting another car head on, and crashed into a tree at 55 mph,” according to CNN. After an Auburn, Massachusetts officer rear-ended another vehicle in late July, he and the vehicle tested positive for carbon monoxide.  

As stories of police departments parking their Interceptors have proliferated, Ford has been dispatching investigative teams to municipalities to assess the damage and assure its customers whose vehicles are paid for by the taxpayers that it will “cover the costs in every Police Interceptor with this issue, no matter what its age, mileage or post-purchase modifications,” according to news reports. 

If you paid for an Explorer directly from your own pocket, Ford seems a lot less interested in solving your problem – although there have been civilian Explorer buy-backs, and several apparently unsuccessful Technical Service Bulletins. Nonetheless, the company has been very careful to build what is known in Ford internal circles as the “defendable fence,” a way to limit the defect to a discreet population of vehicles, protecting the company from a much bigger recall that could include more than a million vehicles. This term surfaced in a 1995 memo on ignition switch fires in 28 million 1983 to 1995 light trucks and passenger cars with the same design. Ford has used this strategy to limit recalls of Ford F-150 cruise control deactivation switch fires, thick film ignition and stuck throttles.

The Explorer’s Chief Engineer Bill Gubing has been out there pushing the idea that the carbon monoxide is entering the occupant compartment via unsealed spaces and wiring holes drilled in the course of implementing after-market features specific to police work, such as emergency lights and radios. Other Ford Explorer owners need not be concerned Gubing reportedly said:

From a carbon monoxide perspective, the police duty cycle is very different than what a retail customer drives…It creates more combustion gas at the back of the vehicle because the engine’s working harder and faster. At the same time, there are modifications done to the back of the vehicle that certainly provide leak paths when those modifications are not done properly. We don’t see the retail customers driving like that. We don’t see retail customers with those modifications.

So that’s how carbon monoxide is getting into police Explorers. How is it getting into many, many, many more Explorers owned by regular folk? According to several Technical Service Bulletins Ford issued in 2012, 2014 and 2016, this problem surfaces when “the auxiliary climate control system is on,” and “may be worsened when the climate control system is in recirculate mode and the vehicle is heavily accelerated for an extended period.” The fixes concerned replacing vents, checking drain valves and reprogramming the heating ventilation air conditioning module to the latest calibration. 

In late July, ODI bumped up the investigation to an Engineering Analysis. By then the agency had collected 791 complaints and identified 41 injuries such as headaches, nausea and light-headedness in 25 incidents. Only 11 complaints involved police Interceptors. 

NHTSA’s first take on the Interceptor problem is cracks in the exhaust manifold, not deliberate, aftermarket perforations. Its tests at the Vehicle Research and Test Center (VRTC) in East Liberty, Ohio, along with field inspections, has led it to theorize that “CO levels may be elevated in certain driving scenarios, although the significance and effect of those levels remains under evaluation as part of the EA.” But it has also suggested that NHTSA may well respect Ford’s fence: “To date, no substantive data or actual evidence (such as a carboxyhemoglobin measurement) has been obtained supporting a claim that any of the alleged injury or crash allegations were the result of carbon monoxide poisoning, the alleged hazard.” 

The consumer-reported Vehicle Owner’s Questionnaires certainly support the notion that CO levels can become elevated during acceleration. Civilians, who also need to accelerate their vehicles – even if not engaging in a high-speed chase – have been reporting that the fumes engulf them when they hit the gas hard.

An owner from Strabane, Pennsylvania told NHTSA in June 2016:

Several times when driving two of my children ages 2 and 10 complained of a bad smell coming from the third row seating. They both became strangely ill, but only my 2 year old began vomiting. My 10 year old complained of being light headed during several long trips. I noticed on many occasions that during high acceleration anyone that sits in the third row complains of stomach aches after a lengthy time in the vehicle. I chalked it up to car sickness, but remembered this only became relevant when leasing this ford. Please help us. I have three kids and no other vehicle.

An Explorer owner in Canyon County, California told NHTSA in February 2017:

While driving the car on the freeway and under acceleration there is a horrible exhaust smell that makes my kids and myself nauseous. It also gives me constant headaches. I didn't realize what was happening until my husband got in the car for the first time and noticed the exhaust smell.

An owner from Brandon, Missouri reported in January 2017:

The smell is very harsh smells like burnt hair or sulfur. On long trips my wife has had severe headaches. This Explorer is the vehicle my wife and kids (ages 14, 5, & 2) use to get to work and school; I need to get this vehicle repaired or replaced. Please help!!!

From the owner of a 2015 Explorer in Juno Beach, Florida:

After heavy acceleration, the cabin has a strong foul sulfur odor that is unbearable. We have had it in to a Ford dealership to have both TSBs performed – the second took 5 days! And it still has not changed. Disgusting smell. This happens when we accelerate as on to the highway or to pass in challenging situations. I only have to press the gas pedal about half way down for 4-5 seconds and the smell is overwhelming. Activating the turbo chargers for any length of time brings this smell into the cabin. Then all of the windows have to go down to clear the smell. My mother can't take this anymore and my wife complains of headaches. This has been an ongoing for a year and a half!

Despite this defect’s high profile, the public information has only dribbled out of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation. Neither Ford’s response to the Preliminary Evaluations or any work the agency has done has been shared with the public. As it opened the Engineering Analysis, ODI summarized parts of Ford’s response and testing it was doing out in East Liberty. The files themselves are not accessible, despite the agency’s regular transparency proclamations. 

For example, in 2012, the agency requested a $10,611,000 appropriation for Safety Defects Investigation activities, $782,000 above the FY 2010 funding level, to, among other things, “ensure that all public information related to investigations, recalls, and complaints is current.” In June 2015, NHTSA released a Workforce Assessment report in which one of its purported goals for ODI was: “Assure that information relating to investigations and recalls is readily available to the public.” On its website, NHTSA states that “NHTSA is committed to providing the most accurate and complete information available to its customers, the American traveling public, in a helpful and courteous fashion.”

Unfortunately, help and courtesy does not come cheap. In June, Safety Research & Strategies submitted a Freedom of Information Request for the non-confidential documents in the investigative file, and the agency told us that they’d be happy to oblige for about $780 dollars. 

First, these materials shouldn’t require a FOIA request – at least according to NHTSA. By law, all federal agencies are required to publish records that because of “the nature of their subject matter, the agency  determines have become or are likely to become the subject of subsequent requests for substantially the same records; or that have been requested 3 or more times.” In addition, agencies are required to publish a general index of those frequently-requested records. NHTSA’s Electronic Reading Room webpage listing those categories of records that “are available without the need for a FOIA request:” includes such “frequently requested records and information” such as downloads of defect investigation records. 

We’ve argued that these documents should be released at no charge because the information is squarely in the public interest, and because NHTSA by custom and by regulation is supposed to put non-confidential investigative material in the public files. We’ve requested that the fee be waived. Stay tuned.