Ford extends police Explorer investigation after crash

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Pressure is mounting on Ford Motor Co. to find a fix for carbon monoxide leaks in its police Explorer SUVs after an officer lost consciousness at the wheel Wednesday and struck a civilian’s vehicle in Massachusetts.

The Austin, Texas police department pulled nearly 400 Ford Explorer SUVs from its patrol fleet on July 28. Ford is broadening its investigation into carbon monoxide leaks in police Explorer SUVs after an Auburn, Massachusetts officer lost consciousness and crashed his vehicle.

At least two police departments have now pulled their Police Interceptor Utility vehicles from the road over related safety concerns. The SUV is made on the same platform as the consumer Explorer and recently became the most popular police vehicle in the country.

The problems come amid what both Ford and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say is an unrelated investigation into 1.33 million Explorers due to an exhaust issue that has not yet led to a recall.

Ford believes the issues in the police vehicles are caused by aftermarket modifications that require wiring access holes to be drilled in the rear of the vehicle that are not sealed properly. Those holes do not exist on the Explorer sold to consumers and the automaker contends it has not seen the same issue with the regular SUV.

“This is a strange thing,” said David Cole, chairman emeritus at the Center for Automotive Research. “It’s sort of an aberration rather than every vehicle having an issue. One of the most difficult things to deal with is these things that happen on occasion, but not all the time. These things are tough to figure out. It’s very frustrating for any company.”

Detective Sgt. Scott Mills of the Auburn, Massachusetts, police department told The Detroit News on Thursday the officer involved in the crash tested positive for poisoning from breathing carbon monoxide.

The crash happened less than a week after the police department in Austin, Texas, pulled all 400 of its Interceptors off the road after it found elevated levels of carbon monoxide in 73 city-owned Interceptors. Those vehicles did have aftermarket modifications.

David Green, Austin city spokesman, said officers first complained of carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms in February. In March, the city launched an investigation. Twenty officers tested positive for elevated amounts of carbon monoxide in their blood, three of whom have not been cleared to return to work.

The Interceptors accounted for 61 percent of Austin’s police vehicles. Green said the department had to change patrols to put two officers to a car rather than the usual one.

“We are not willing to return these vehicles to the street until we’re confident that there’s no risk to employees,” Green said Thursday.

Ford has announced it would pay to repair “every Police Interceptor Utility that may have this concern.”

Auburn has since pulled 14 of its SUVs with aftermarket alterations from service after they produced some level of carbon monoxide during tests, Mills said. Six of its officers who had been driving the SUVs tested positive for exposure to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.

Ford has a team of engineers there investigating the police department’s fleet of Interceptors. Mills said Auburn police officials also spoke on the phone with Ford engineers in Dearborn on Thursday about the problem.

Other municipalities around the country have encountered similar problems, according to the NHTSA and media reports.

Departments in Michigan also use the vehicles. The Michigan State Police have them in their fleet and said Thursday they have not experienced any carbon monoxide problems.

The Auburn, Massachusetts Police Department posted this photo of a damaged Ford Explorer after a police officer passed out behind the wheel after a suspected carbon monoxide leak.

The Dearborn Police Department also uses the vehicles and Chief Ronald Haddad said Thursday all the vehicles had been tested a few weeks ago and none had issues.

NHTSA has an unrelated open investigation covering an estimated 1.33 million Ford Explorers — both police models and regular models — from 2011-17 model years for reports of exhaust odors in the main cabin.

The investigation comes after 2,719 reports fielded by NHTSA and Ford. Eleven of those involve the police interceptor versions.

NHTSA opened the preliminary investigation more than a year ago after it received more than 150 complaints from civilians about exhaust fumes. The investigation was expanded at the end of July.

The agency does not comment on open investigations, a representative said Thursday.

In addition to the NHTSA complaints, Ford gave the agency 2,400 reports it had fielded through warranties, dealers and legal claims related to the exhaust odor issue.

Ford said the exhaust odors reported in regular Explorers are unrelated to the carbon monoxide reports. “If a vehicle has such an odor, customers should bring it to a Ford dealer to address that issue,” the company said.

Auburn police are still using 15 Interceptors that were deemed safe after testing. “I don’t know honestly if there is a suitable alternative (to that vehicle),” Mills said.

Ford has not recalled any of the vehicles under scrutiny.

“Safety is our top priority, and we are concerned for those involved,” Ford spokesman Brad Carroll said in an email Thursday. “We are working with the Auburn Police Department and have a team on the ground inspecting the vehicles.”

Mark LaNeve, Ford’s vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said Tuesday during a call with investors that “we haven’t seen any impact on sales. ...We haven’t seen any carbon monoxide issues with regular Explorers.”

He reiterated the company is paying to repair affected vehicles regardless of modifications made after they left Ford plants.

NHTSA said it has identified three crashes involving exhaust odors and reports of 41 injuries.

Police departments reported crashes — including a rollover with injuries — as well as physiological injuries from carbon monoxide exposure. The alleged injuries “range from unspecified to loss of consciousness, with the majority indicating nausea, headaches, or lightheadedness.”

But NHTSA has found “no substantive data or actual evidence (such as a carboxyhemoglobin measurement) ... supporting a claim that any of the alleged injury or crash allegations were the result of carbon monoxide poisoning, the alleged hazard” after testing vehicles at its Ohio research center.

It did find carbon monoxide levels could be elevated in certain scenarios.

The Interceptor version of the Explorer is experiencing manifold cracks that “appear to present a low level of detectability and may explain the exhaust odor,” NHTSA reported.

“Putting together an appropriate fix is not simple,” Cole said. “You just don’t know. Tracking these kind of things down is a real challenge.”

The Associated Press contributed.