Feds Win Out Over Ford for Massive F-150 Recall

Ford F-150
Photo: ford.com
Ford F-150

As recalls go, it's a whopper — 1.19 million Ford F-150's (Model years '04-06) and a select number of Lincoln Mark LT vehicles (Model year '06) are being recalled by Ford due to airbags that may deploy inadvertently. Under CEO Alan Mulally, this is one of the largest recalls at Ford. A rare black eye for a company that has steadily improved its quality and reliability over the last five years.

On the surface, the F-150 recall seems pretty straight forward. There have been 269 complaints about F-150 airbags deploying without warning. It's resulted in minor injuries for 98 people. But the back story behind this recall shows tug-of-war between an automaker and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration when it comes to recalls. And ever since the massive Toyota recalls in later 2009 and early 2010, it is clear Washington will only negotiate for so long before it finally says to the automaker, "Do the recall or we'll force you to do it."

That's what's been happening with the F-150 recall.

Ford and NHTSA have seen the problem from two different perspectives. The feds say the number of F-150 airbag deployments is the most ever for an inadvertent air bag deployment case. Ford believes the potential failure rate of its airbags is far lower than what NHTSA contends. So the two sides negotiated just how widespread the problem is and how many Ford trucks should be recalled. Like every other automaker dealing with a potential recall, Ford wanted to limit the number of vehicles involved and thereby limit its costs and exposure to bad news. Well, eventually the Feds prevailed.

Pre-Toyota recall, auto makers could push NHTSA further before giving in to a massive recall. Not anymore. After dealing with a Toyota and facing tough criticism for being too easy on automakers, NHTSA will only dance for so long before it threatens to pull the trigger on a calling a public hearing to prompt a recall. In other words, automakers can fight a recall for only so long before Washington wins out.

In my opinion, the headline hang-over on this F-150 recall will be pretty limited. Yes, any recall totaling 1.19 million vehicles is a big deal, but compared to what Toyota went through last year (and right or wrong, that is the comparison for many recalls), this is far less severe.

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