Monday, March 07, 2016

Will Brake Problems Slow Down Ford's F-150 Pickup?

On Mar. 4, the U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that it was launching an investigation into brake failures of Ford's popular F-150 pickup trucks.  The agency claims that nearly half a million 2013 and 2014 models could have brakes that suddenly fail completely.  While no fatalities have yet been associated with the failures, the NHTSA has received 20 complaints of this problem in the last seven months, including four incidents that resulted in non-injury crashes.  Ford has responded that it will cooperate fully with the investigation.

In the automotive industry, the F-150 is a legendary success story.  It is the single best-selling vehicle in the U. S., and if Texas had a contest to name the state automobile, the F-150 would win hands down.  This is despite the fact that few F-150 owners routinely carry a half ton or more of stuff in the truck bed.  In other words, people buy pickup trucks for reasons other than practicality.  As any TV ad for pickups will show, the automakers have spent millions to associate pickup trucks with virility, toughness, and other he-man qualities.  The Wikipedia article on pickup trucks puts it this way:  "In America pickups are favored by low fuel prices, taxes and regulations that distort the market in favor of domestically built trucks, and a cultural attachment to the style."  (I especially like that "cultural attachment to the style.")  Ford has parlayed this attachment into a huge share of the U. S. automotive market, and with today's historically low fuel prices, the popularity of pickups shows no sign of abating.

But stopping a vehicle that weighs up to 2 tons (1800 kg) unloaded and more than 3 tons (2700 kg) loaded is no simple matter, so power-assisted brakes are standard on these vehicles.  Most brake boosters, as they are called, use a diaphragm actuated by a partial vacuum taken from the intake manifold or other source.  When the driver applies the brakes, this motion opens a valve that adds the force from the diaphragm to the brake-pedal force, and applies much greater force on the hydraulic master cylinder than one's foot can ordinarily supply.  If the booster fails, the brakes still work, but it takes much greater force for a given braking effect.

While it is too early to determine what may be going on with the F-150 brakes, it's easy to see what could go wrong with such a system.  Complaints to online auto-mechanic help websites about F-150 brakes indicate that in several cases, the brakes totally failed:  the brake pedal went to the floor and no braking happened.  When the vehicle was towed to the shop, no external signs of leakage were found but the master cylinder had no brake fluid in it.  That fluid had to go somewhere, and my guess is that a seal broke or an accidental passageway was formed between the master cylinder's high pressure and the vacuum in the brake-assist system, sucking the fluid into the vacuum system of the power assist. 

I have never worked on brakes more advanced than those in a 1955 Olds, and my idea of what is wrong with the F-150 brakes may be total nonsense.  But the NHTSA doesn't think the complaints are nonsense, and now both Ford and the government are trying to find out what's happening.

Besides this specific case, there may be something bigger going on with regard to the way the NHTSA is treating consumer complaints.  The Detroit News quotes NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind as saying recently that we are now in the era of the "Big Recall," which he says is not a good thing.  As anyone who has looked into the matter knows, automakers are constantly fielding complaints of flocks of problems of all kinds ranging from the trivial—interior trim that fades oddly in sunlight, for example—to the deadly, like the GM ignition-switch debacle I wrote about in this space in 2014.  The problem the automakers face is to allocate their limited investigative and engineering resources so that the truly dangerous problems get addressed promptly—hopefully before anyone gets killed—and the less serious ones are dealt with as time permits.  This is an art as much as it is a science, and historically the NHTSA has limited its involvement to situations where fatalities were involved and a serious defect could be identified.

The NHTSA's action in this brake-failure problem is not unprecedented, but is unusual in that no fatalities or even injuries have been reported in connection with the problem.  And the total number of complaints—about 30 in the last year—is not all that large, considering the millions of F-150s out there on the roads.  Perhaps this is the NHTSA's attempt to head a problem off at the pass, so to speak, before anybody does get killed as a result of an F-150's brake failure.  In any event, Ford has been called on the public carpet concerning the issue, and they now have no choice but to come up with documents requested by the government before April 20, or face large financial penalties. 

Has Ford done anything wrong?  That remains to be seen.  The NHTSA's action falls into the category of what legal specialists call "administrative law," which is in a kind of gray area between laws explicitly passed by legislatures, and arbitrary and capricious bullying by out-of-control government agency administrators.  As federal agencies go, the NHTSA has been fairly well-behaved compared to, for example, the Environmental Protection Administration, which has landed in the U. S. Supreme Court numerous times for what some say is vast overreaching of its statutory authority. 

There are good reasons to treat a large corporation like Ford differently than one would treat a private individual.  And in using complaints from private individuals to build a case against Ford, in that sense NHTSA is looking out for the little guy.  But it is easy to imagine how the NHTSA could overdo the thing by pestering Ford about every little complaint that could conceivably result in an injury.  So far, they don't seem to be doing that, but there is nothing except the integrity of NHTSA officials to keep the agency from going overboard.

The best outcome of this situation will be if Ford finds a definite cause for the brake failures and fixes it.  This might involve a massive recall, but we are almost used to those now.  Even if millions of F-150s are recalled, there is little chance that the American consumer will quit buying his favorite pickup.  The NHTSA is no match for all those he-man pickup ads. 

Sources:  I referred to the articles on the F-150 brake problem carried on Mar. 4 by Autoweek online at and by the Detroit News at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles "Ford F-series," "pickup truck," and "vacuum servo."  I blogged on the GM ignition switch recall last year on Apr. 7, 2014 and June 9, 2014.

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