Ford offers Explorer exhaust-leak fix

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Ford Motor Co. is offering a fix for potential carbon monoxide leaks in 1.3 million of its Explorer SUVs in the U.S, although it maintains there is nothing wrong with them.

The Dearborn company said the fix, which covers the model years 2011-2017, involves reprogramming the vehicles’ air conditioners, replacing lift-gate drain valves and inspecting the sealing of the rear of the vehicle in an effort to reduce “the potential for exhaust to enter the vehicle.”

The reported exhaust problems with the Ford Explorer have prompted investigations by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which says 2,719 drivers have complained to regulators or Ford about symptoms including loss of consciousness, nausea, headaches and dizziness since launching an investigation in July 2016. Despite the complaints, NHTSA has steered clear of launching a full-scale recall of the cars, although it escalated its investigation in July 2017.

One driver in Washington state complained to NHTSA last week of a “strong foul odor” coming from the exhaust of a 2016 Ford Explorer.

“We bought this vehicle brand new, the dealer has tried multiple times to find the cause of the issue and try to fix it, still not resolved,” the driver, who was not identified, wrote to NHTSA. “The said odor is very strong that it gives us chest pains, headache and nausea. One of my kids does have a severe allergy and my other kid is a special need child, we would need to drive the car with windows down in order for us to use the car.”

Another 2016 Explorer driver in Alaska, who was also unidentified, complained of a “smell coming from dash vents all the time. “Not sure if it is exhaust but eyes start burning after about 15 minutes of driving,” the Alaska driver wrote. “Higher RPMs seem to make it worse.”

Even as it was announcing the fix Friday, Ford stressed that its own investigation of complaints it received directly from drivers has “not found carbon monoxide levels that exceed what people are exposed to every day.”

The reported exhaust problem with Ford Explorers occur against a backdrop of a police officer losing consciousness at the wheel of an Explorer-based Police Interceptor Utility in August and striking a civilian’s vehicle in Massachusetts.

At least two police departments have 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.

Ford says it 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.

NHTSA launched a preliminary investigation into the Explorer’s apparent exhaust problems in July 2016. The agency escalated the inquiry in July of this year, saying it is now conducting an engineering analysis to determine “the root cause, frequency and safety consequence” of exhaust manifold cracks that are believed to be causing a low level of carbon monoxide detectability in the SUVs. The cracks are believed to be a possible explanation for the exhaust odors that drivers have complained about.

NHTSA has been reluctant to launch a full-scale recall of either version of the Explorer.

The agency said in July that no substantive data or actual evidence such as blood samples showing evidence of carbon monoxide poisoning.

NHTSA said its preliminary testing suggests carbon monoxide levels “may be elevated in certain driving scenarios,” but it said the significance and effect of those levels remains are being evaluated as part of an ongoing engineering analysis.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing