In a recent issue of Mother Jones, investigative fellow Michael Beckel warned readers of the concernsshared by Ralph Nader, automotive engineers, and Pentagon analyststhat a Dupont product called Kapton was still being used to coat the wires of the cruise control deactivation switch (made by Texas Instruments) found in millions of Ford cars and SUVs, even though the U.S. and other governments had long been leery of using the product in its military planes and vehicles. These experts theorized that Kapton was to blame for hundreds of mysterious engine fires in Ford's domestic fleet. As Beckel wrote:
In the 1990s, the Coast Guard eliminated Kapton from its helicopter fleet, NASA grounded the shuttle fleet for five months while inspecting damaged Kapton wire, and the Clinton administration called aging Kapton wiring an issue of "national concern." The Australian, Israeli, and Canadian governments have all investigated and in many cases prohibited its use in their planes.
So why is Kapton still in millions of Ford cars, trucks, and SUVs?
Since the early 1990s, the company has used this DuPont-manufactured material in the hydraulic pressure switch that shuts off cruise control when drivers hit the brakes. Coated with Teflon, Kapton serves as a barrier between the flammable brake fluid and the electric current just millimeters away. Yet years of use can cause cracking in the Teflon, leaving the Kapton membrane and the switch itself vulnerable to ignition from the currentwhich, in Ford vehicles, continues even when the engine is off.
In the past seven years, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has investigated the role of these switches in more than 500 blazes that have ravaged cars, houses, and garages, and reportedly killed at least one person. The agency analyzed 260 cases of fires in Ford sedansCrown Victorias, Lincoln Town Cars, and Mercury Grand Marquiseswith model years between 1992 and 1997. In 1999, the company recalled nearly 300,000 of those vehicles. And by March of last year, the NHTSA had received more than 200 complaints of fires in Ford trucksF-150 pickups, Expeditions, and Lincoln Navigatorswith model years from 1995 to 2002. But Ford maintains that the root cause of the fires is too complex to fault a single component.
Although the automaker acknowledges evidence of overheating in the cruise-control components in some modelsattributing it to a "systems interaction" of leaking brake fluid, Teflon corrosion, age and mileage, plus the location of the switchit has recalled less than a third of the vehicles with the Kapton switches. Gail Chandler, a spokeswoman for Texas Instruments, which manufactures the switches, insists they're safe. "We don't think there's anything wrong with the switch itself or with Kapton," she says. "We've thoroughly tested these products and have not found there to be a problem."
Last week, Ford recalled another 1.2 million vehicles due to safety concerns with same cruise control deactivation switch. That brings the total up to 6.7 million vehicles recalled over this problem. Ford still says that the switches themselves aren't the problem: "If we felt the switch was unsafe we'd be recalling all of them," said Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley. "We're confident we've captured all of them." But as the Detroit News notes,
"if the combined total of 6.7 million vehicles called back -- including 5.8 million in the United States -- were a single recall, it would be the fourth-largest ever.
Some safety advocates and plaintiffs' attorneys have criticized Ford for moving too slowly to recall the vehicles.
"There's no excuse to do these recalls in a piecemeal fashion. There's something in Ford's culture -- look at the Firestone debacle --that prevents them from taking faster action," said Rob Ammons, a Houston attorney representing the family of Darletta Mohlis of Westgate, Iowa, who was killed in a May 2005 fire that the family claims started in her 1996 Ford F-150. "Why not get this product that's catching fire and destroying lives off our roads and off the market?"
The NHTSA says that Ford has been cooperative and that it, too, expects no more problems associated with the switches. We just hope they're right, though the pressure put on these (as other) regulators by the Bush administration to make things more business friendly gives us pause.
Beckel's timeline of the Ford switch controversy can be found here. Mark Dowie's classic Mother Jones article about the atrocious safety problems with the Ford Pinto can be found here.