For more than a decade, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has been tracking the hazards associated with Recreational Off-Road Vehicles (ROV), with a focus on their poor handling, lateral stability, and dynamics. But the epidemic of Polaris ROV fires has shifted the commission’s attention to the dearth of industry standards to prevent ROV designs and malfunctions from sparking deadly fires.
In September, the CPSC’s Directorate of Engineering Sciences Caroleene Paul met with the Specialty Vehicles Institute of America to lay out the commission’s case for setting fire prevention standards in the wake of a $27.25 million civil penalty levied against Polaris Industries. The Medina, Minnesota, manufacturer paid the fine to settle two charges of untimely disclosure to the CPSC that “models of RZR and Ranger recreational off-road vehicles (ROVs) contained defects that could create a substantial product hazard or that the ROVs created an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death.”
Polaris agreed to that penalty – without any admissions of guilt – in April. One charge concerned 133,000 model year 2013-2016 RZR 900 and model year 2014-2016 RZR 1000 ROVs that caught fire while consumers were driving, posing fire and burn hazards to drivers and passengers. According to the commission, by the time Polaris reported the defect to the CPSC in April 2016, it had tallied 150 fires, including one death to a 15-year old passenger, 11 burn injuries, and a fire that consumed ten acres of land. The other charge concerned model years 2014-2015 Ranger XP 900 and Crew 900 vehicles that had heat shields that became loose and fell off. Polaris received 36 reports of fire and made two design changes before informing the CPSC.
Neither the recalls, nor the fine have stopped the Polaris fires. In fact, in December 2017, the agency and the manufacturer released a joint statement admitting as much:
… users of the vehicles that were repaired as part of the April 2016 recall continue to report fires, including total-loss fires. The 2017 RZRs were not included in the April 2016 recall, but these models have also experienced fires. The CPSC and Polaris continue to work together to ensure fire risks in these vehicles are addressed. However, at this time, the CPSC and Polaris want to make the public aware of the fires involving these vehicles.
One can only hope that voluntary standard-setting is a companion activity for the CPSC, because as that process proceeds at its molasses-in-January pace, Polaris ROV owners face considerable risks of harm in the interim.
“So far, the response from the CPSC and Polaris has been underwhelming. Even after these recalls, Polaris ROVs are continuing to ignite and cause enormous human damage,” says attorney Jeffrey Eisenberg, of the Salt Lake City firm of Eisenberg, Gilchrist & Cutt, who has represented 10 families of Polaris fire victims. Among them is Colby Thompson. In July, Thompson was riding his 2017 Polaris RZR up an embankment in Bozeman, Montana, when the ROV burst into flames. The RZR had only been driven 20 miles; Thompson’s burns to his upper body were so severe, he was placed in a medically induced coma.
“Polaris has ignored this problem for far too long, and has done too little to remedy its RZR problems,” said Eisenberg. “There is no way that a RZR manufactured in 2017 with 20 miles of service should combust. My clients have paid the ultimate price for this corporate misconduct.”
The Hottest ROVs on the Market
Why can’t Polaris keep its powerful ROVs from burning up? A class-action lawsuit complaint, filed April 5 in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, alleges that Polaris fires are caused by a design defect plaguing multiple models spanning the 2011-2018 model years.
Polaris has been the undisputed king of the ROV market for at least a decade, netting $3.36 billion in sales in 2016. One of the biggest factors in its commercial success has been the production of high-powered ROVs featuring its in-house designed Pro-Star engine family, introduced in the 2011 RZR XP 900, and phased in to all of its ROVs by 2015. The civil action further argues that the real root cause of the fire risk is:
an unusually high-powered “ProStar” engine that is tucked directly behind the occupant compartment. The ProStar engine produces more power than the engines in competing vehicles and, accordingly, more heat. The ProStar’s exhaust gas piping routes forward toward the occupants, then turns 180 degrees, creating a U-shape, and exits from the rear. The piping lacks proper ventilation and heat shielding, and is positioned within inches of combustible plastic body panels. Thus, the hottest area of this high-performance engine is located inches behind the occupants, in an area of the vehicle that is enclosed with little room for air flow to dissipate the high heat. The extremely high temperatures, combined with inadequate cooling and heat shielding, result in the melting of the plastic body panels and the ignition of any combustible material surrounding the engine, including organic debris, leading to potentially deadly fires.
When tallying all of the Polaris products that combine a high-performance engine with poor placement and inadequate venting, the lawsuit, filed in April 2018, alleged that the true total of the damage since 2013, based on Polaris’ recalls, is more than 250 fires, more than 30 severe injuries, and at least three deaths. Those numbers are likely a significant undercount because, according to CPSC and Polaris, some models have burned but have not been recalled and fires continued to occur even in models that had recall repairs.
Setting ROV Standards
There are currently no mandatory safety standards governing the design and manufacture of off-road recreational vehicles. In October 2009, the CPSC published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to address the “unreasonable risks of injury and death associated with Recreational Off-Highway Vehicles,” related to their rollover propensity.
(The CPSC distinguishes ROVs from ATVs as “motorized vehicles having four or more low pressure tires designed for off-road use and intended by the manufacturer primarily for recreational use by one or more persons.” ROVs are commonly called Side-by-Sides for their seating arrangement. Unlike an ATV, which is straddled by the rider with handlebar steering, ROVs resemble small, rugged, Jeep-like vehicle, accommodating one to six occupants.)
The commission moved to rulemaking after determining that voluntary standard efforts did not do enough to rein in deaths and injuries caused by the vehicles’ poor lateral stability and vehicle handling, and the lack of occupant protection features, such as seatbelts. This touched off a seven-year, concerted effort between the CPSC and industry to beef up ROVs’ performance requirements. In November 2016, after the Recreational Off-Road Vehicle Association (ROHVA) and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) finalized amending their ANSI voluntary standards to the CPSC’s satisfaction, the staff recommended that the rulemaking be terminated. The staff concluded that the new standards would likely reduce ROV rollovers, by increasing lateral stability and decreasing occupant ejections through seat-belt use and improved side retention.
The brief public portion of the meeting in September at the Grand Hyatt hotel at Dallas-Fort Worth airport featured a presentation on voluntary standards-setting to address ROV fire hazards by Mechanical Engineer Han Lim of the CPSC’s Division of Mechanical Combustion Engineering. Attendees included Honda, Polaris, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Textron and members from the OPEI.
Lim noted the lack of any safety standards regarding ROV thermal or fire issues, despite the diverse sources of ignition – debris intrusion, fuel tank integrity, and flammable plastic body panels, for example. Since 2004, ROV manufacturers have launched some 47 recalls for a variety of defects that could result in fires, such as fuel tanks, hoses, and filters; electrical components; and exhaust systems. In addition, the CPSC has launched at least 120 ROV fire In-Depth Investigations since 2004, when the agency began to track this trend.
The CPSC recommended forming task groups to study the recall data and CPSC In-Depth Investigation reports in formulating improvements and standards. Lim recommended the group focus on fuel tank punctures, structural integrity of the engine, the fuel system and electrical components and spacing requirements to shield ignitable parts from excessive heat. Lim also suggested that the group look at surface temperature limits to prevent contact burn injuries and standards to prevent debris penetration. The CPSC ended its presentation by speculating that manufacturers already had internal standards that addressed thermal issues, and by expressing its preference that industry representatives codify them in a voluntary safety standard. The commission offered its assistance in that process. The OEMs thanked the CPSC, agreed to look over the data and get back to the agency, but set no timetable for doing so.
Market Pressures Raise the Heat on Honda Pioneers
Polaris is hardly the only manufacturer to create a fire hazard in the pursuit of market share. The May 15 recall for all 2016-2017 and some 2018 Honda Pioneer 1000 ROV models for fire and burn hazards is another good example of how trying to wrap every desired market attribute into one ROV without adequate cooling and thermal protection can create fire-prone designs.
Honda introduced the Pioneer 1000 in 2015 for the 2016 model year, to compete in the side-by-side market with competitor vehicles that seated four to six passengers and cargo, but with the improved trail capabilities associated with smaller two-occupant models. Typically, manufacturers use a longer wheel base to fit more passengers and cargo, but do so typically enlarges the turning radius and reduces its maneuverability on off-road trails. Honda bragged that it had overcome that problem with its own “packaging technology,” that mostly consisted of placing an engine in the center of the vehicle under the occupant compartment. Roomy? Check – the Pioneer fit up to five occupants. Peppy? Check – a large displacement twin-cylinder delivered 72 HP and a top speed of 67 mph. Agile? Check – the Pioneer 1000 boasted a shorter wheelbase and turning radius.
What did customers get for all of that? Hotter-than-hell occupant compartments and major thermal management problems that produced complaints, burns, fires, and a Honda Product Improvement Campaign, followed by the recall.
In August 2017, Honda issued Product Improvement Campaign for a “Cabin Comfort Improvement Kit,” which included weather stripping, seals, and rubber mats and pads, presumably to reduce the high temperatures in the occupant seating area. According to the bulletin:
American Honda Motor Co., Inc. is conducting a Product Improvement Campaign to improve cabin comfort on 2016 and 2017 model year Pioneer 1000 vehicles. With the addition of an accessory roof and windscreen/windshield and under hot weather conditions, occupants may experience uncomfortable heat coming from the engine compartment. A cabin comfort improvement kit that reduces the entry of hot air and lowers front seat area surface temperatures is available.
Nine months later, Honda was forced to recall all 2016-2017 and some 2018 Honda Pioneer 1000 because the “muffler can overheat, causing the plastic heat shield to melt or catch fire, posing a fire and burn hazard to consumers.” The Honda Powersports website offered an additional root-cause fact: the heat shield itself was melting or igniting due to “one engine cylinder misfire condition.”
Mitigating Heat Build-up with Better Design
Polaris’ and others’ inability to design an ROV that can go fast without burning up itself and its passengers has created a whole aftermarket for accessories that mitigate heat accumulation –which owners don’t discover they need until they experience the problem themselves. One 2016 article for UTV enthusiasts introduced six products to keep a RZR Turbo from overheating:
We have heard a few RZR Turbo owners complaining of their engines overheating. Under super hard driving, under load, we have had it happen to us too. So there has [sic] been a number of companies trying to address the issue, and they have come up with some pretty interesting products.
The universe of heat-reducing products includes the Polaris RZR Regulator Rectifier. Manufactured by Rick’s Motorsport Electrics, the Rectifier “is built using Mosfet Technology, allowing the regulator to run cooler & more efficiently. Rick’s worked with RZR owners to customize a part that is easy to install and will solve common overheating issues.” There is also the CBR Radiator & Heat Exchanger Combo: “If you’re going to race or even fully build out a XP Turbo, getting completely rid of any potential heating problems is a major concern. CBR has been building custom, oversized and race spec’d radiators and intercoolers for a long time now. The BMP 2016-Up RZR XP Turbo Slip-On Double Barrel Exhaust “drastically reduces heat buildup.”
Finally, a clutch-cooling device called “The Blow Hole,” a fan that expels hot air “even at low ground speeds as opposed to the OEM rpm dependent clutch fins. According to a review in ATV MTNK, the Blow Hole pulls approximately 225 CFM of air through the clutch ductwork.”
Meanwhile, Can-Am, a brand owned by Bombardier Recreational Products, has tried to get the design right the first time. In 2013, BRP debuted the Can-Am Maverick 1000 series, with a 1,000cc twin-cylinder Rotax engine, rated for 101 horsepower. In this design, the engine is located underneath the center of the chassis and beneath the passenger compartment, but it modified the air intake and exhaust tract to create what the company calls “High-Flow Dynamics.”
According to reviewer John Arens in ATV Illustrated, First Look: “The air intake location, the air plenum size, and exhaust valve size were all increased, and the exhaust tubes are now a dual, tuned length system that flows through dual mufflers at the rear. We’ve always noticed a slight throttle lag in the past thanks to air flow restrictions, and the new High-Flow system should eliminate that trait.” Elsewhere, he noted: “[w]ith the area around the muffler now open for better airflow, temperatures around the exhaust system are reduced as well.” Unlike the Polaris ROVs, the dual exhaust pipes remained separate, with a “tuned length system that flows through dual mufflers at the rear.”
In 2012, reviewer Lance Schwartz of ATV Rider pointed out another key difference between the RZR and the Can-Am: “Exhaust gases travel from the cylinders through individually tuned headers, resonators, industry-first catalytic converters and eventually exit through dual exhausts.”
How Long Before Industry Addresses its Fire Problems?
The federal government spent seven years tango-ing with ROV manufacturers over voluntary standards to prevent their products from flipping over, spewing or crushing occupants. That dance included the threat of rulemaking, independent CPSC lateral stability testing, and innumerable meetings with industry types to get to a place of – if not a mandatory standard – recognition and notice that manufacturers must design these vehicles to certain criteria to prevent these crashes, injuries and deaths.
What’s it going to take to make the industry address its thermal problems? As the public portion of the September industry-CPSC confab only lasted for about 30 minutes, it was hard to take the temperature of the room. But perhaps the regulated and the regulator can learn something from the last go-round, and cut right to setting rigorous safety and engineering design standards so that manufacturers don’t ignite the vehicle or the occupants on their way to the bank.