Ford Explorer: The Modern Day Pinto?

Ford Explorer Exhaust Leak
There is nothing quite like driving down the highway and hearing audible alarms from your carbon monoxide (CO) detector. Needless to say, it will make you think twice about continuing your trip. But why do we have a CO detector in our vehicle? That’s not exactly standard equipment, right? Let me rewind and tell the whole story.

We purchased our 2015 Ford Explorer brand new. It had everything we were looking for in a vehicle and in many ways, it was my wife’s dream car. It has since turned into a nightmare. Initially, it had minor issues like body panels popping out of place as well as plastic moldings flying off when driving. Neither of those problems gave us that warm, fuzzy feeling about our purchase when you make one of life’s big investments, but we didn’t think much of it. Two different Ford dealerships fixed those issues free of cost and both dealerships acted like they had fixed the same issues hundreds of times. Cause for concern, yes, but not health or life-threatening.

What’s that smell?

Somewhere around the same time, my wife noticed an exhaust smell in our Explorer. When she first told me about it, I thought maybe she did something to cause the issue, e.g. start the vehicle, open the back hatch, etc. I wouldn’t expect exhaust to come barreling into the vehicle cabin under normal conditions, but it can get windy in Kansas so I gave Ford the benefit of the doubt. After all, who would think a brand new vehicle would have something as stupid as an exhaust leak? 

After some time and periodic mentions of exhaust smells, I finally experienced the issue first-hand. We started to see news coverage regarding other Ford Explorers with the same exhaust issues, most frequently those of law enforcement. Ok, now this is getting some attention. I kept telling her a recall is right around the corner and to sit tight… In the meantime, don’t use your air re-circulation and crack a window. I was disheartened to see the media move onto something new and no recall was issued. It was as if Ford ignored the problem and it just went away. I decided I would call Ford. The first person refused to say anything was wrong with the Explorer line and they even acted as though I was crazy. The only advice they offered was to call the dealership. I explained that I had already called the dealership and they told me “What are we supposed to do without a recall? You need to call Ford.” Enough with the ping pong!

Customer service, what’s that?

CO reading

I didn’t really fault the dealership, but Ford was annoying me quickly because I knew the problem was well beyond our vehicle. More news stories trickled in about a police department here or there with exhaust issues or officers getting sick. I decided to do a website chat with Ford so I had the conversation on record. They told me the exact same thing. Despite the news coverage, those are fringe cases, Explorers have no known issues and you need to call your dealership. If Ford is going to ignore us based on verbal evidence, then we’ll buy a CO detector to prove we have issues! It’s easy to ignore someone without hard proof, but I was bound and determined to back it up with science/data. At the same time, I decided to ramp up my efforts a bit and get the Kansas Attorney General’s office involved as well.

Low and behold, shortly after installing our CO detector we smelled exhaust and received heightened CO readings. I contacted Ford and the Attorney General’s office with proof this time. Ford took a slightly different stance. Was it because they knew the AG's office was involved or because of the proof I'm providing? At any rate, I was assigned a general counsel who would be my point of contact from here on. Now we are getting somewhere! My wife posted a picture of the CO detector on Facebook and I also received a call from the dealership. They had apparently spoke with Ford and a technical service bulletin (TSB) had been issued at some point. We were told the new parts and sealants in the TSB should correct the exhaust smells in the vehicle. Great! Take it for as long as you need it! Just fix the POS!

I took the vehicle into the dealership and fortunately we were given a loaner. After several days, I’m told by Ford they want to send an engineer from Detroit to inspect the issue as well, but we would need to leave the car at the dealership. I just want this fixed and a few extra days with a loaner isn’t going to bother me in the slightest. We finally got the vehicle back after 2 or so weeks of repairs. The engineer supposedly checked it out and felt the TSB would fix it.

A week after the repairs, my wife again smelled exhaust. I checked the CO detector and sure enough, it had a new reading on it. I contacted Ford again, sent a new picture of the CO detector peak reading, and they were going to do some additional checking on their end. After a bit of back and forth, they decided they would send the engineer out again and this time he was going to bring a CO monitor/recorder to test it further. Why didn’t he bring that to start with? Whatever, just fix it!

Second Engineer Visit

The engineer arrived and I had the opportunity to talk to him. He explained he would only be testing for a few hours. I had told the general counsel at Ford multiple times that we would go weeks without seeing or smelling anything. I even performed my own testing on a hot day to see if I could replicate the readings to no avail. What is a few hours of testing going to do? I offered to keep the testing equipment in the vehicle for a few weeks and he said “no.” In about a 5 minute conversation with me, he managed to explain the half-assed testing he was going to perform and then he condescendingly explained how those levels of CO are not dangerous and I’m not smelling CO because it is odorless. Really? Apparently I’m a complete moron too? My response was, “So says you… There are limited studies on how CO and exhaust effect people, especially children and/or babies. And I realize CO is odorless, but it is mixed in with exhaust, which you can smell.” He was a bit taken back and the only response he could muster was, “Yeah I guess that's true.” I went on to explain that I’ve owned numerous vehicles, new and used, and none of them ever had an exhaust smell in the vehicle. In addition, none of them have ever had a TSB issued for the exhaust smell in the cabin. I was not happy beforehand and this discussion just infuriated me because I left seeing the writing on the wall, i.e. Ford was just going through the motions and wasn’t planning to do anything to correct the issue.

Low and behold, a week or so later after going through the data gathered onsite, Ford emailed me stating they did not find elevated CO levels in the vehicle. <start sarcasm> Wow, I’m really shocked. <end sarcasm> I have since received a determination letter from Ford stating the case is closed and no issues were found. How do they continue ignoring this?!?! I have also received a letter from the Kansas Attorney General’s office stating the case is closed on their end as well. Even the little bit of government help and consumer advocacy I felt I had in my corner is now referring us to the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA). I contacted NHTSA and they simply said the investigation is ongoing. Great, I’ll let my family keep breathing in the fumes and other nastiness until you figure it out!

Ford Explorer exhaust

Pinto <-> Explorer

People are always interested to hear about the way Ford has bungled this so I often get asked by friends and family if there are any new revelations. So there I was explaining this situation to someone and they made the comment, it sounds just like the Pinto issue. I’ll admit, I was aware of the issues with the Ford Pinto but it was a little before my time. I knew there was a royally screwed up gas tank design and a cover-up of some sort, but not exactly who, what, or why. So where do the parallels with the Pinto of the 1970s come in? Many people remember the Pinto as being a death trap due to its rear gas tank design. Plenty of vehicles have issues and recalls so that isn’t what made the Pinto truly memorable. The Pinto was also the part of a cover-up by Ford where Ford came to the determination [validated by internal memos] that it was going to be cheaper to pay millions in lawsuits for those mangled/traumatized in a wreck than fix the issue. Basically, let’s wait for a wreck to happen and get sued. This is business ethics at its finest!

What kind of decisions are being made behind the scenes on the exhaust issue? Might some of the same talking points from the Pinto come up? In my opinion, yes. I would not be the least bit surprised if Ford is rolling the proverbial dice yet again.This time though, it’s not as black and white as a car wreck bursting into flames. Ford knows that studies on the long-term effects of CO and exhaust on human subjects are lacking. Why? Because no one wants to take part in these studies and oh yeah, it’s unethical… Something they appear to lack an understanding of. Either way, I know the lack of empathy toward us and other families in our situation is startling. I would love to see any one of the Ford/Lincoln management drive our vehicle around for any period of time with their children in the back! If someone wants to step forward, let me know and I'll happily drive the vehicle to Michigan and fly back on my own dime. 

The other part of the Pinto story was the lack of response from the NHTSA. Initially, this group meant to protect customers did nothing and it was only after a 2nd investigation resulting from public outcry did they do the right thing. Continued public interest and media coverage seem to be the only outlets shining light on the issue. Hopefully the media coverage doesn’t go away! Just when I think everything has died down and Ford is going to get away with this, I see new media coverage on the problem somewhere else. Whether it is the Park City Kansas Police department on KSN TV or the Austin Texas department. In July 2017, ABC World News also ran a special on it. Does the NHTSA remember the Pinto case? Are we waiting for more crashes or maybe even some deaths before they react? We’ve had recalls for slipping floormats for cripe’s sake?!?! 

Based on what I’ve read, the NHTSA has over 2000 complaints regarding the exhaust issues on the Ford Explorer and we are merely one of them. Right now, Ford is holding steady that the exhaust risks of the Explorer are not greater than their contemporaries. Feel free to insert “fire” in for “exhaust” and “Pinto” in for “Explorer” in the previous sentence if you want to see the similarities.