NHTSA closes Explorer investigation after Ford's recall

NHTSA opened its evaluation of the 2011 Ford Explorer on June 19, 2012. It cited 15 complaints to the agency saying that power steering could suddenly fail.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. safety regulators closed a 2-year-old probe into power steering glitches in late-model Ford Explorers, signaling that they are satisfied with the automaker’s recent decision to recall the SUV.

Ford said May 29 it would recall 195,527 Explorers from the 2011-13 model years as part of a sweeping campaign that included nearly 1.39 million vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration closed its “preliminary evaluation” of the Explorer on June 12, a document posted today on the agency’s Web site said.

Ford’s decision to recall the Explorer demonstrates automakers’ strong desire to avoid criticism from U.S. regulators as General Motors faces harsh scrutiny from Capitol Hill for its failure to recall millions of cars with a fatally flawed ignition switch.

NHTSA opened its evaluation of the 2011 Ford Explorer on June 19, 2012. It cited 15 complaints to the agency saying that power steering could suddenly fail.

From the start, Ford hardly disputed that the power steering system could fail. But the company insisted the problem was rare, and that it was not a legal violation.

"Ford continues to believe that loss of power steering assist in the subject vehicles does not present an unreasonable safety risk in these vehicles,” Steve Kenner, global director of Ford’s automotive safety office, wrote in a letter to NHTSA on June 11, 2013, agency records show.

Kenner argued in the letter that the Explorer could still be driven without power steering -- and that it is inherently easier to control a car without power steering at higher speeds, where the risk of an accident is highest.

When it recalled the SUV last month, Ford said it knew of 15 accidents that were thought to be related to the loss of power steering in the Explorer. Ford said all of them involved vehicles moving at lower speeds.

In one instance, NHTSA records show, a driver was unable to manage a left turn at an intersection due to the loss of power steering and ran off the road into a shallow ditch. The crash damaged the front end of the Explorer and caused minor injuries to the driver, but they required no medical treatment.

The underlying problem, Ford said last month, was that an intermittent electrical connection in the power steering control module could lead to a loss of the motor position sensor signal. Ford told dealers to check the module for diagnostic trouble codes, and to replace the steering gear if any trouble codes are present.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com

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