NHTSA Re-Opens Investigation Into Ford Pickup & Ambulance Stalling Problems

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National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been called on to do more to detect dangerous vehicle defects since the Takata exploding airbag and General Motors ignition switch defects. It appears that the new NHTSA administrator has taken these calls to action seriously. The new Administrator, Mark Rosekind, spoke at the North American Auto Show in Detroit and promised that the safety regulator would do better in enforcing environmental and safety standards. He set-forth a plan to restructure the agency and announced plans to request Congress to pass legislation that would enable NHTSA to perform its duties more thoroughly. In recent weeks the regulator also showed its new-found aggressiveness by levying the largest fine in the agency’s history against Honda for reporting failures under the TREAD Act. This week, the agency latest action once again shows its renewed commitment to aggressively pursuing potential safety defects. Originally announced in 2013, the investigation into a stalling defect affecting large Ford pickup trucks and ambulances based on those trucks has been reopened due to consumer complaints received by the agency.

What Vehicles Are Affected By The Ford Stalling Defect?

It is important to note that this investigation is still on going. Therefore, additional affected vehicles may still be identified. However, to date, the vehicles that have been identified as exhibiting the defective stalling behavior are Ford’s largest pickup trucks. Currently known to be affected are model year 2011 and 2012 vehicles including the:

  • Ford F-250
  • Ford F-350
  • Ford F-450
  • Ford F-550

Affected vehicles are equipped with 6.7-liter V8 diesel engines. Ambulances that have been affected are those that have been converted from the F-550 base model.

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Why is This New Stalling Defect Occurring In Ford Pickups And Ambulances?

Unlike the GM stalling problems, this defect is not the result of a defective ignition switch. Furthermore, because the ignition switch is not the problem in this instance, a work-around such as removing the ignition key form a heavy key ring will not work in this instance and will not prevent the vehicle from stalling during operation. In fact, there is little a consumer can do to address this problem aside from taking his or her affected vehicle to the dealership for repair.

The single option for consumers is largely due to the mechanism of the defect. In this instance, the defect that causes the vehicle to stall is a faulty sensor in the exhaust system. The faulty sensor is the exhaust gas temperature (EGT) sensor which is located directly behind the diesel particulate filter (DPF) in the exhaust system. A malfunction of this sensor is interpreted by the powertrain control module as the exhaust system overheating.

When this defect occurs, the telltale sign is the vehicle will display a warning message along with 5 audible chimes. The vehicle will then enter a power reduction mode which could last for up to 45 seconds. During that time the engine will shut down as soon as the vehicle’s speed falls below 4 miles per an hour.  Once the engine has shut down, it will not be able to be restarted. Thus, aside from the loss of control the driver of an affected vehicle would experience, they are also likely to be stranded with a disabled vehicle – wherever the vehicle came to rest.

The Original Recall Was Limited To Ambulances But Not Consumer Pickups With The Same Engine And Sensors

The initial recall for the faulty exhaust sensors was initially limited to approximately 3,000 of the F-550 F-550 Ambulance Package vehicles despite the newly recalled vehicles apparently sharing the same defective sensor. All currently known affected vehicles are equipped with 4 identical EGT sensors. When any of these sensors indicate an error condition or loss of sensing function, the engine shutdown defect can occur.  However, Ford’s initial remedy was to only replace a single EGT sensor. The fact that some vehicle owners have experienced this stalling issue multiple times, even after repair, may indicate that Ford’s initial remedy was too conservative, not long lasting, and ineffective at preventing reoccurrences of the problem since a malfunction of any one defective sensor is enough to trigger a vehicle shutdown.

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NHTSA is Placing A Greater Emphasis On Consumer Complaints

The complaints received by NHSTA identified vehicles that are both included and currently outside of the scope of the recall. The complaints alleged a myriad of problems with some claiming multiple EGT sensor malfunctions and multiple sensor replacements. One complaint read, ““This is the third time that a EGT sensor has failed on my Ford F-350 diesel truck. The first time was in California in the desert traveling at 70 miles per hour. The truck shut down for no reason that I could see. I had a horse trailer with five horses on board.” While a loss of vehicle control is dangerous in any situation, the danger can be especially pronounced when hauling a trailer or other cargo.

Several complaints recount instances where ambulances became disabled and precious minutes to save a life were lost. “This vehicle, which is an ambulance, was dispatched to an emergency call. As they turned into the drive of the facility the chimes sounded and the engine shut off. Had this vehicle been on the highway at the time, it would have been a very dangerous situation for the crew involved….Another ambulance had to be dispatched to the call and delayed care to the patient.” In a separate incident, a complaint indicated that an ambulance wouldn’t start at all and a second vehicle had to be located and dispatched.

Mr. Rosekind has indicated that he wants the agency to do more with consumer complaints like these. He believes that examining consumer complaints, aggregating the data and then analyzing that information can allow NHTSA to identify defects earlier and save more lives. However, the agency still requires more resources and personnel to handle the massive amount of data received. Mr. Rosekind indicated that consumer complaints received by the agency have nearly doubled from over 40,000 complaints a year to approximately 75,000 complaints a year. While the agency is currently on  “overload” due to the volume of complaints, Mr. Rosekind has indicated that more analysts will be hired and he believes that NHTSA can learn from other industries regarding best and efficient practices for handling big data.

In any case, it will take time for NHTSA to ramp up its investigative and enforcement actions even further. But, let’s hope that NHTSA’s commitment to, “[using] every tool available to pursue its safety mission”, is strong and able to withstand any industry push-back.

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