Since 1998, Ford Motor Co. and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have known that the cruise control deactivation switches in some Ford vehicles fail, igniting fires that have destroyed hundreds of trucks, SUVs and luxury vehicles while parked with the engine off. In the last 11 years, this alleged defect has affected more than 9.6 million vehicles in eight different models, has been blamed for 1,500 fires, sparked five separate NHTSA investigations, one consumer advisory and six recalls. These rolling recalls have added up to the largest automotive recall to date. Ford’s most recent and final attempt to tackle the problem – an August 2, 2007 recall for 3.6 million more Ford vehicles, has not been entirely successful at removing the risk from millions of affected vehicles.

These fires have caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage, and to date, are alleged to have caused three injuries and three deaths. In May, an Iowa man was injured and his wife was killed in a fire that started in their F-150 truck and spread from their garage to their home, the family alleges in a lawsuit. A separate lawsuit maintains that a four-year-old Woodstock, Ga. girl died in a house fire on New Year’s Day 2004, allegedly caused by the family’s F-150 pick-up truck, which was parked in the family’s garage. In 2007, the family of Al Gavegan Sr. alleged that the San Antonio man died in a house fire that originally ignited in his 1994 Mercury Marquis parked in an attached garage.

Ford literally has studied ignition in this switch for eight years. Over that time, its public explanation regarding these fires has shifted from, first, placing the blame on defective switches damaged in the manufacturing process to, second, blaming a systemic problem caused by a series of related events influenced by the switch’s position in the engine compartment and the electrical architecture of the speed control system, to, finally, an age issue.

The basic elements of switch fires–leaking brake fluid, corrosion, an electrical short and melting plastic–have been known since 1999. But until the most recent NHTSA investigation in August 2006 closed with a comprehensive analysis, the automaker had been unable to tease out the nuances of the scenario: Why are some vehicles with this speed control system more prone to switch fires than others? What has also been clear, since Ford and Texas Instruments began digging into the problem, is that any effective solution would have to interrupt the sequence of events that lead to engine fires. But, until 2005, Ford rejected basic design fixes, in favor of merely replacing the switch.

Ford first began recalling vehicles in May 1999, with a small campaign to replace the switches in 279,000 1992-93 Lincoln Town Car, Crown Victoria and Grand Marquis vehicles. But problems with the cruise control deactivation switch in vehicles with a powered-all-the-time configuration surfaced a year earlier, when Ford and its supplier launched an internal investigation to determine what was causing them to fail. According to documents submitted by Texas Instruments and Ford in one NHTSA investigation, early on, Texas Instruments identified the powered-all-the-time configuration as a key factor in the scenario that led to a short circuit and fire. It suggested that Ford install a relay circuit to disrupt the continuous power to the switch. Ford resisted this suggestion as too difficult for technicians to implement. Instead, it turned its attention to the robustness of the switch. Texas Instruments insisted that its switch met and exceeded the design specifications. The issue became so contentious that the two companies severed their longstanding business relationship.

The 2006 Office of Defects Investigation report showed that switches would be prone to short-circuit in vehicles where braking released vacuum pressure on the switch powerful enough to invert the seal. Over many braking cycles, this action fatigued the Teflon-coated Kapton seal, causing it to develop cracks that allowed water to seep in and corrode the electrical elements. If the switch was mounted vertically, or angled downwards on the master cylinder, over time, those corrosive products could form dendrites that would complete the path from circuit to ground and short the switch. The continuous power allowed the short to heat up to the point of ignition, even when the vehicle had been turned off and parked for hours.

Ford phased out the powered-all-the-time design in most vehicles by 2003. (Only the Econoline and the Expeditions still employed that strategy.) On January 27, 2005, Ford finally came around to the Texas Instruments point of view. It launched a recall of some vehicle models with a history of reported switch failure problems that would address the powered-all-the-time issue. (In previous recalls, Ford blamed the component and simply replaced the switch.) It announced that it would install a fused wiring harness on the speed control system on 1.2 million Econolines, F-Series (excluding the F-150), Excursions, Explorers, Mountaineers and the E450. Ford followed up in September 2005 with another recall to install the fused wiring harness in 3.8 million F-Series pick-ups, Lincoln Navigators, Ford Expeditions and Bronco SUVs roughly covering model years 1994-2002.

This latest recall represented another twist in the saga of the cruise control deactivation switch. Now the problem is not caused by the unique combination of a powered-all-the-time electrical architecture coupled with an upside down position on the master cylinder, but by age. In its Defect and NonCompliance Report to NHTSA, Ford said that an investigation initiated in February 2007 found that switches were leaking in vehicles older than 13 years, “indicating that a long term durability issue may be affecting the speed control switch.” While the mechanism of failure was different, the outcome was the same: “leakage causing increased electrical resistance within the leaking switch, and the potential for an unattended vehicle fire.”

Ford, however, launched the campaign without actually having sufficient jumper harnesses available to make the repair. Despite the success of the final campaign, NHTSA was concerned that too few vehicle owners had taken advantage of the repair. On February 28, 2008, the agency issued a Consumer Advisory, urging owners of certain unrepaired Ford, Lincoln and Mercury SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans to “bring their vehicles to dealer repair shops immediately to have the cruise control switch disconnected.” The agency said that only half –about 5 million – of the affected vehicles had been repaired in the five previous recall campaigns. If you want more information or need to discuss the above referenced subject matter, contact Rick Morrison at 800-898-2034 or by email at Rick.Morrison@beasleyallen.com.

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