Bum Steer: Ford Recalls 1.4 Million Vehicles for Potential Detaching Steering Wheels

Michael GrossmanMarch 22, 2018 4 minutes

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Cars are complicated machines, and they've only gotten more so with over a century of technological refinement.

Having noted that a working vehicle is something of a mechanical marvel and that the layman might not fully understand its every working, it's also safe to say most will know some things about what a car should do. The tires shouldn't fall off. The sunroof should stay put. Airbags should help more than they harm. And one of the most important elements of the vehicle--the steering wheel--should at no time come loose and/or fall off.

That last one seems pretty straightforward, yes? Nothing controversial about believing the thing responsible for directing two to forty tons of gasoline-filled steel and fiberglass should remain securely attached.

Someone might want to pass that wisdom along to automakers, because Ford Motors recently attracted national attention for exactly that problem.

What's Going On?

On March 14 Ford Motor Company issued a North American recall for almost 1.4 million Fusion and Lincoln MKZ model sedans after getting reports that loose bolts were causing some vehicles' steering wheels to detach.

At the time of the recall the company had allegedly received word of two accidents (one with injuries) related to this problem. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was already on the case, having started its investigations last October. Between the company and the federal agency it was determined that the bolts attaching the wheel to the steering column have the potential to loosen over time from normal driving behavior, at which point the wheel could simply shake loose and fall off.

While Ford says it only knew of a couple of genuine accidents, the NHTSA received dozens of complaints from unhappy Fusion owners who alleged everything from loose or wobbly steering wheels to outright separation from their anchor points. One owner noted that the wheel fell directly in her lap as she attempted to turn into a gas station lot in Georgia; another told the NHTSA that his steering wheel came loose while he was traveling on an interstate highway. Both survived their alarming ordeals, but neither should ever have been in that position.

The recall affects every variant of Fusion and Lincoln MKZ in the 2014-2018 year range. Reports of steering decouplings have trickled into Ford for at least three years, but even after finding 137 related complaints internal auditors said in 2015 that they lacked evidence to "identify any trend" to warrant a defective-product recall. It seems like the ramp-up in reports toward the latter half of 2017 may have caused them to (eventually) change their tune.

This isn't Ford's sole quality-control problem lately, either. The steering wheel recall is hot on the heels of a separate series of reported door-latch problems. Related recalls alleged that affected doors could fly open when affected cars simply made a turn. That chain of recalls affects several million vehicles and has cost Ford over $600 million and counting.

I Have One of These Vehicles. What Should I Do?

As it often does with vehicle recalls, the proposed remedy for this issue involves taking it to a Ford dealership. Dealers have instructions to install a longer securing bolt with "more robust thread engagement and a larger nylon patch placed for proper torque retention." It's often best to let a certified technician handle vehicular issues that could cause a wreck if unchecked, so if you've felt some wobble in your turns, I'd suggest taking your Fusion or MKZ to a local dealership to get that bolt checked out and replaced free of charge.

As long as I'm talking about that troublesome bolt, though: Does "more robust thread engagement" sound like a posh twist on "a screw that actually fits" to anyone else? Given the nature of the reported issues, could it be something as simple but devastating as too small a securing bolt used in a vital spot? There's no way Ford would cop to it, but on a high-speed assembly line I wonder how hard it would be to accidentally pick up screws 1/16" too small for the purpose and use them on a steering assembly--and to continue doing so for years.

Ford Might Be On the Hook to Injured Drivers.

As I mentioned at the beginning, cars' inner workings are pretty complicated to the uninitiated (including me). With that said, the fundamental mechanics of steering aren't enormously intricate. The wheel's supposed to bolt tightly in place, proximally connecting a driver to the car's front axle and enabling him or her to steer. It has no business coming loose about 99% of the time and like all auto parts it should never detach accidentally. No one in or around the affected car is safe if that happens. Ford unquestionably knows it shouldn't detach, and yet apparently they've been aware that's a possibility for several years and continued to make their cars the same way in their factories in Michigan and Mexico, where most of the affected vehicles were made.

In many Texas cities--and Dallas is a major example--a vehicle is almost indispensable in getting from one location to another. The Lone Star State is so big horizontally that its large cities have a tendency to sprawl outward instead of building vertically. Most of us have to range out of our immediate neighborhoods to get to work or play, and it's not asking too much of our vehicles that they transport us safely to and fro. That's one of the many aspects of the implied warranty Ford and its distributors create when they release the cars to the market.

The purchase of a consumer good (like a car) creates an agreement between its buyer and seller that the item will perform according to reasonable expectations. In other words, the car is what the sellers say it is and does what they say it does, including all bits and pieces that make it work. If it's sold off a Ford dealership lot brand new with too small a bolt holding its steering wheel in place, that could be interpreted as a violation of its warranty of merchantability or even its warranty of fitness for a particular purpose.

Ford's lucky that only two accidents and one injury have been reported so far, given the severity of the defect involved and the millions of possibly-faulty cars still on the road. If they've known for something like three years that the Fusions' wobbly steering wheels are a problem and are just now getting around to issuing a recall, it's likely that anyone else hurt on a Sunday drive could have grounds to seek damages.