WASHINGTON (Oct. 14, 2009) — Ford Motor Co. plans to add 4.5 million vehicles to the largest-ever U.S. recall because of leaky cruise control switches that have been reported to cause vehicle fires.
The latest action brings to at least 16 million the number of vehicles recalled by the auto maker for this problem over the last decade. That's about twice the size of the second-largest U.S. recall, which also involved Ford, according to government figures.
The new recall will be its last because the latest action covers all remaining cars and trucks with cruise-control switches made by Texas Instruments, even if those switches don't pose safety risks, a Ford spokesman said Oct. 14.
“We did this to reassure customers and make sure there will be no future actions connected to this,” he said. “We've gone to extra lengths to include both vehicles with risks and those that don't show risk.”
Ford said in an Oct. 9 letter to U.S. regulators that Windstar minivans from 1995 to 2003 will be recalled for repairs following “a small number of reports” of switch fires. The Associated Press (AP) put the number of affected Windstars at 1.1 million.
“Though extremely low, there was found to be some risk of an unattended fire resulting from a leaking switch in Windstar vehicles,” the letter said.
Ford recommended that owners not park the affected vehicles in an enclosed garage or near a house until the faulty part is replaced because the vehicle does not have to be in use for a possible fire to occur.
The letter, posted Oct. 13 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), also said Ford would recall another 3.4 million vehicles with the cruise-control deactivation switch, according to the AP.
No fires have been reported for those vehicles, Ford said. But the car maker is including them “to address possible ongoing customer lack of confidence in vehicles with the switch,” said the letter, from Ford's James Vondale. It was sent to Daniel Smith, NHTSA's associate administrator for safety assurance.
The vehicles that don't seem to pose a safety risk, according to the letter, are mostly pickups and SUVs, including the Excursion (diesel), F-Super Duty (diesel), Econoline, Explorer/Mountaineer, Ranger, and F53 Motorhome vehicles. They are from model years 1992 to 2003.
Texas Instrument switches
The switches, made by Texas Instruments, may leak internally and “overheat, smoke or burn,” the Ford letter said. In some Windstars, the switches may leak brake fluid into the anti-lock brake system (ABS), which also has led to reports of fires.
Owners will be instructed to bring their vehicles to a Ford or Lincoln/Mercury dealer for installation of a fused wiring harness to eliminate the potential risk of fire, the letter said.
The ABS module connector also will be inspected and repaired at no charge on 1999-2003 Windstar vehicles with leaky switches, it said.
Ford plans to notify dealers this week and send notification letters to owners between Oct. 26 and Dec. 11, the letter said.
The cruise control problem emerged in 1998, when the government investigated complaints of engine compartment fires. A year later, Ford recalled about 279,000 Ford Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car sedans built for the 1992 and 1993 model years, to replace cruise control switches.
More complaints and investigations led to five more recalls in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Those recalls totaled more than 10 million cars and trucks built for the 1992-2004 model years.
In 2008, 225,000 of the vehicles were recalled again, to redo the initial repair.
NHTSA warned consumers to look out for certain warnings of possible imminent fires. The signs include cruise control systems that stop working or can't be activated, brake lights that stop working, and brake lights and ABS warning lights illuminating on the dash board.
“These hazardous cruise control switches pose a safety risk even while the cruise control is not in use and vehicles are turned off or unattended,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. “I urge consumers to pay attention to this warning and bring the affected models in to have them repaired as soon as possible.”
Before the cruise control issue escalated, Ford's 1996 recall of 7.9 million vehicles for an ignition malfunction ranked as the industry's biggest, according to NHTSA figures.
Chrissie Thompson contributed to this report, which ran in Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.