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US senators call for investigation of Ford Focus, Fiesta transmission decisions

Phoebe Wall Howard

Two U.S. senators have called for an immediate federal investigation of Ford Motor Co.'s decision to knowingly launch and continue for years to sell Fiesta and Focus vehicles with defective transmissions despite thousands of complaints and a deluge of repairs.

Separately, the chairman of the U.S. House committee with oversight of the agency charged with traffic safety said he was troubled by the National Highway Traffic Administration's "wait-and-see approach towards an avalanche of consumer complaints" and must hold Ford accountable.

Their comments follow the Detroit Free Press Out of Gear investigation released July 11 based on internal company documents and emails showing that Ford put the cars on sale in 2010-11 despite knowing they were prone to randomly slipping into neutral and starting unevenly. That means the cars, equipped with a dual-clutch transmission that Ford called the DPS6, can lose acceleration at times, including on freeways, and have unexpectedly bolted forward. Both, according to consumer complaints, have caused accidents and injuries.

Detroit Free Press investigation: Ford knew Focus, Fiesta models had flawed transmission, sold them anyway

'A dangerous nightmare': Owners of Ford Focus, Fiesta vehicles speak out

“This is a bombshell report on Ford’s systematic efforts to hide transmission safety defects and mislead consumers to buy faulty cars. Ford knowingly put American families and children at risk – this indifference to safety is inexcusable," said U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, in a joint statement to the Free Press.

"NHTSA must take the thousands of complaints it has received from scared consumers seriously and immediately open a defect investigation into the Ford Fiesta and Focus vehicles to identify how deep Ford’s lies are buried," the lawmakers said. The Free Press investigation found at least 4,300 complaints to federal safety officials related to the transmission problems for the 2011-16 Fiesta and 2012-16 Focus.

Markey and Blumenthal oversee highway safety and transportation issues as members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Ford spokesman TR Reid responded to the congressional calls for review.

“Automobiles using the DPS6 transmission were and remain safe to drive," he told the Free Press. "Ford’s work and comments on these vehicles have always been thorough and truthful.”  

Ford has maintained through the years that because steering, brakes and other systems continue working when the cars slip out of gear, the so-called "unintended neutral" events are not a safety issue.

'Ignoring obvious problems'

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees and authorizes funds for NHTSA, also responded to the investigation with a statement to the Free Press.

Congressman Frank Pallone at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Carteret's new marina.

“Reports that Ford was knowingly selling vehicles with safety defects are deeply disturbing. Equally disturbing is NHTSA’s wait-and-see approach towards an avalanche of consumer complaints about serious automobile safety issues," said the New Jersey Democrat. "We’ve seen this before – automakers putting profits before safety and NHTSA ignoring the obvious problems."

Pallone, D-N.J., the son of a cop who sold cars after retiring, said, "NHTSA must do its job to hold Ford accountable.”

Policymakers noted that Ford's public statements in response to the investigation appeared to reinforce the Free Press findings. When asked how the automaker can promote the cars as road safe, Ford officials repeatedly point to the fact that NHTSA has never required the company to recall the vehicles.

NHTSA conferred with Ford in 2014 and declined to open a formal investigation. The company did add an "overt warning" light to the cars in 2015 that tells drivers the transmission is malfunctioning, which regulators wanted.

Tuesday morning, the federal traffic safety agency provided a statement to the Free Press: “NHTSA shares the sense of urgency about this and other high-priority safety concerns. Our mission as an agency and the approach that we take to our review of every safety matter is founded on concern for public safety and a reliance on data, science and facts. NHTSA continuously monitors a variety of data sources, including media reports and consumer complaints, revisits issues as appropriate, and will not hesitate to take action if and as warranted to ensure safety. NHTSA will, as always, act appropriately and responsibly related to any safety matter when there is evidence of an unreasonable risk to safety."

Ford's response: Here's how Ford responded to Focus, Fiesta transmission investigation

Driver concerns: Among Ford cars with flawed transmission, the 2012 Focus had the most complaints

Ignoring warnings

At least 1.5 million Ford Fiesta and Ford Focus vehicles with the DPS6 transmission remain on the road and many drivers who have contacted the Free Press say they continue to have problems and fear for their safety, in most cases despite repair attempts. By 2016, Ford documents show that 350,000 of the cars had been repaired three or more times, and dealership mechanics reported extreme frustration that the problems kept recurring.

The Free Press investigation found that the automaker pushed past company lawyers’ early safety questions and a veteran development engineer’s warning that the cars weren’t roadworthy. Ford then declined, after the depth of the problem was obvious, to make an expensive change in the transmission technology.  

Findings included: 

  • Ford knew its popular low-cost 2011 Fiesta and 2012 Focus cars had defective automatic transmissions before the cars went on sale.
  • Ford in October 2011 decided to change the transmission technology, but didn't follow through.
  • Customers have reported at least 50 injuries to federal authorities related to symptoms of the defect.
  • Federal regulators inquired after four years of extraordinarily high consumer complaints and declined to open an investigation or order a recall.
  • Internal Ford documents show the company cut corners to save money and boost fuel efficiency.
  • Ford is facing billions of dollars in warranty costs and potential liability in lawsuits.
Ford's 2012

The investigation was inspired by a 70-page report Ford filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in April, the last sentence of which warned investors about potential liability from litigation related to its dual-clutch DPS6 transmission. 

'People at risk'

Michael Kirkpatrick, an attorney at the nonprofit Public Citizen consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said safety concerns spotlighted by the Out of Gear investigation change the public debate.

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was led to believe the transmissions were just a performance issue,” Kirkpatrick said. “Evidence is growing that it’s a safety problem. This warrants an investigation. And, depending on their findings, a possible recall.”

He said, “There was some doubt as to whether this was safety or poor performance. A combination of detailed reporting based on company documents and federal reports, combined with the stories of real people telling their stories of having serious acceleration problems and reported accidents – it changes the character of the situation. This is putting the safety of people at risk.”

Kirkpatrick is the lawyer who intervened pro bono as a third party appealing the class-action settlement, saying the negotiated deal between Ford and a class action law firm in California is unfair to consumers. His April argument is under review currently by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

200 calls, letters 

Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, called for a review by federal regulators.

“A significant volume of substantive new information has come to the fore. It deserves to be looked at. NHTSA should take a hard look at this issue based on the new data, and demand Ford submit all relevant customer complaints. This is quite simply their job.”

He added, “And based on consumer complaints and previous recalls for vehicles slipping into neutral, it is hard to understand how a recall is not on the table here. In fact, Ford has previously conducted recalls for essentially the same problem.”

Within five days of the Free Press investigation, more than 200 Focus and Fiesta owners from all over the United States called and emailed requests for help and pleas for a transmission recall, including constituents of all three states represented by elected officials calling for action.

'Stalls in intersections'

Consumers provided specific examples of risky driving experiences: 

  • Steve Mantegna of Salisbury, Maryland, owns a 2015 Focus and wrote Friday: "Yesterday on the way to work, 30 minutes away via the highway, my car stalled out and I nearly got in an accident. This is a regular occurrence. A drive that normally takes 30 minutes will take me about an hour because I factor in the time it takes for the 'transmission to cool' or feel like working. I cannot afford to spend $200 out of pocket to get it repaired, and I do not believe there has been a recall yet. I am a teacher trying to make some extra money in the summer and and I am really stressed out." 
  • Brian Lamb of Mooresville, North Carolina, wrote on Saturday: "I had a 2012 Focus that nearly got me run over by an 18 wheeler. I had the problem of seemingly it was in neutral when it was actually in gear."
  • Jonathon Laureano of North Plainfield, New Jersey, wrote on Thursday that he has taken his 2014 Focus to the dealership "at least five times in the past two years for check engine lights, jerking starts from stops, loss of power while trying to merge into traffic. After I take my car in for repair, I get the same thing from the dealer, 'We don't see any problem.'"
  • Linda Wehmueller of Hazel Park owns a 2018 Fiesta and wrote Sunday: "I notice it most when driving through a traffic circle or trying to turn right. It seems like there is no acceleration. I've always felt it is very sluggish. I have been close to being hit many times."
  • Olivia Coletta of Cincinnati, wrote on Thursday: "My 2015 Fiesta stalls in neutral in intersections. I've had to push it through intersections, out of traffic and across busy rush hour lanes. I complained to my dealer. They told me nothing was wrong and I didn't know how to drive. I took it to another dealer. They told me they fixed it but the problem continues. I've checked for recalls, I've complained to Ford corporate and I've complained to NHTSA. Thank you for looking out of consumers when it doesn't seem like anyone else is."

Officials at NHTSA urged consumers, law enforcement, and others to report safety matters online to www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/VehicleComplaint/ or to call 1-888-327-4236.

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard at 313-222-6512 or phoward@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid. Read more on Ford and sign up for our autos newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: US Senators: Investigate Ford Focus, Fiesta transmission decisions