A major auto manufacturer released a new recall for millions of affected pickup trucks, effective September 6.
As a change of pace from the increasingly-predictable airbag recalls that fill automotive news, this recall involves another major Supplemental Restraint System--the seat belts. More accurately, it affects the components that actually make seat belts able to stop flying drivers and passengers.
Who Makes The Defective Product(s)?
The recalled vehicles are made by Ford Motors, the second-largest U.S. automaker and a ubiquitous name in American life. The company has an especially devoted following in Texas (dubbed "Ford Country"), but their vehicles can be seen anywhere you go in the U.S. and to a lesser extent internationally.
What's the Matter With The Trucks?
The recall involves potential hazards with the driver and front passenger seat belt mechanisms.
Many people know that an airbag is inflated by a small explosion behind the bag itself, rapidly deploying it in an accident. There's remarkably little time to get that cushion between the steering wheel and the driver (or the dashboard and the passenger) when a collision occurs, so explosive energy quickly inflates the airbag when every split second counts.
Some may not realize that there is a similar device in seat belts called a pretensioner. During a crash, the pretensioner uses a small explosive charge to lock the seat belt in place, pushing it down with significant force to counteract the forward momentum of the driver. The explosion is largely what pulls the seatbelt tight and (hopefully) keeps the seat occupant from flying too far forward. This rapid exchange of forceful movement can leave people with some seat belt-shaped bruises, but compared to the alternatives, most would agree it's a worthwhile trade.
In its announcement Ford says that the pretensioners in the affected vehicles may generate "excessive sparks" that pose a combustion risk in the cab. At the time of the recall the company says it has received 23 reports of smoke or fire in affected trucks, but no injuries have so far been reported.
Which Specific Products Are Affected?
The recall relates to F-150 model trucks, in both Regular and SuperCrew cab variants, manufactured between 2015 and 2018.
The recall is restricted to North America at this time.
How Widespread Is the Problem?
Even with a relatively narrow selection of affected models, Ford estimates the recall will involve over two million trucks--1.62 million U.S. vehicles, along with 340,000 in Canada and 37,000 in Mexico.
What Can Be Done About It?
Drivers of the affected F-150 models are strongly encouraged to take their vehicles to a local Ford dealer where they will be repaired at no expense to the drivers.
To resolve the issue, dealers will remove some insulation material and wiring harness tape from the vehicle's "B pillar" (the vertical support behind a vehicle's front seat windows), and apply heat-resistant tape to the carpet and its insulation. They will also modify the back interior panels of affected regular-cab trucks. Civilian drivers are strongly discouraged from trying to make these modifications themselves.
What This Means
For one thing, it means that Ford has gotten extremely lucky so far. A fire that starts behind a car's paneling has to be very hard to fight and has a lot of opportunities to burn out of control before it can even be addressed at all. I'd like to think all (or at least most) of us know intuitively that even on a small scale--say, a small explosive device throwing off sparks that burn some insulation and tape--fire is exceedingly dangerous, especially in enclosed spaces like a truck's cab.
There's also the matter of the normal dangers inherent to the equipment. At their heart, pretensioners are explosives. Fine-tuned explosives that serve a specific purpose, yes, but for all that they still go boom to make a thing happen. Generating excess sparks is bad enough, but fires have a pretty predictable effect on containers of compressed gas. Until they're repaired, those pretensioner gas modules have a chance of heating up until they blow. No one has been hurt yet in such a manner, and I hope it stays that way, but if car companies are going to keep using shaped charges for critical safety functions, they need to do better at making sure they're accident-proof.
Ford engineers and quality testers (or walking it back further, the parts companies who actually made the wonky pretensioners) likely know more than your average Joe about what an unpredicted and uncontrolled flame can do to a truck. Part of their job is make sure no such fires can start in the complicated wires and electronics that govern modern vehicles.
The silver lining is that there haven't been any reported injuries from these fires. Of course that's not a guarantee they haven't occurred; if people don't know a manufacturing defect exists, it usually takes longer to connect the product's flaw with the injury. Hopefully this problem is taken care of before anyone gets hurt.