The nation's top auto safety regulator has escalated and expanded an investigation into complaints of floor mats trapping accelerators in Ford Motor Co. vehicles.
The probe has not led to any recalls, but it appears to echo recent investigations into unintended acceleration in Toyota cars, which ultimately led to massive global recalls after drivers complained of cars speeding out of control, causing injuries and deaths.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this week upgraded the Ford defect investigation, originally launched in May 2010, to an engineering analysis, its most serious level of inquiry. In addition, the agency broadened the investigation's scope to include almost twice as many vehicles.
Under review are 2008 through 2010 Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ sedans; previously only the 2010 Fusion and Milan were being considered. All told, an estimated 480,000 vehicles are potentially affected.
According to a NHTSA filing dated Dec. 12, the agency has reviewed 52 driver complaints about the problem, including 41 submitted by Ford as part of the inquiry. Many of the complaints describe sedans surging out of control and proving difficult to stop as the engine roars.
NHTSA said the acceleration might be caused by sticking floor mats.
"The accelerator pedal may fail to return to idle due to interference created by unsecured or double stacked floor mats in the driver's foot-well," the filing said.
Susan Krusel, a Ford spokeswoman, said the automaker was "disappointed by NHTSA's upgrade of this investigation, particularly since the condition under investigation relates to improperly installed, unsecured or double stacked floor mats, but we will continue to cooperate fully with the agency through this process."
After a fiery crash of a Lexus outside San Diego took four lives in August 2009, NHTSA concluded that floor mats could entrap pedals in Toyota vehicles, leading the Japanese automaker to issue its largest recall ever. That, in turn, led to a series of subsequent defect investigations and recalls stretching over several years.
In the end, Toyota recalled more than 10 million vehicles worldwide, was named in scores of lawsuits and paid almost $50 million in fines to NHTSA for violations of federal vehicle safety codes. Toyota eventually paid a $10-million settlement to the family of the victims of the 2009 crash, which is believed to have been caused by an improperly installed floor mat from a different Lexus model.
According to NHTSA, there have been no fatalities, injuries or crashes associated with the alleged Ford defect. In its filing, NHTSA identifies 16 complaints from Ford drivers.
But a review of all complaints about the affected vehicles on the agency's website shows a number of crashes and injuries, some serious.
In a letter sent by Ford to NHTSA in August 2010, the automaker said it found three injuries and one fatality that "may have resulted from the alleged defect." It did not submit information on those incidents to NHTSA, Ford continued, because "information is insufficient to support a determination that they pertain to accelerator pedal interference with a Ford all-weather mat."
In its most recent filing, as well as in communications with Ford, NHTSA indicated that it is looking at potential design features, including a "heel blocker in the floor pan" that could lift floor mats in position to entrap the gas pedal, as well as the heavy rubber all-weather mats that may be more prone to entrapping pedals.
Among the complaints cited by NHTSA, there are a number of assertions that a misplaced floor mat interfered with the pedal and led to sudden acceleration. But several others make a point of denying that the mat had anything to do with the problem.
The owner of a 2008 MKZ complained that the vehicle accelerated to an estimated 85 mph while on a family vacation. The owner said the sedan could be stopped only by shifting the car into neutral. Once the car was stopped, the motorist wrote to NHTSA in October, "I checked the floor mat and it was not near the accelerator pedal."
After a July 2010 sudden acceleration incident, the owner of a 2009 Fusion took the car to a dealership for inspection, according to a NHTSA complaint. The dealership indicated that the floor mat interfered with the accelerator and noted that the mat was not attached to retaining hooks. But the vehicle owner insisted that was not the case, saying the mat had been moved forward by the dealership.
"In my heart, I firmly believe that the car is not safe," the driver said in a letter submitted to NHTSA. "It was not the floor mats that caused the problem, it was that something malfunctioned and the gas pedal locked to the floor."
In a statement, Ford said the NHTSA probe covers only cases involving floor mat entrapment.
"As NHTSA indicated, their investigation focuses on unsecured or improperly installed Ford or aftermarket floor mats. Ford is not aware of any reports of pedal interference with properly secured floor mats."
NHTSA has given no indication on how long the investigation could take.