US ends investigation into Ford SUV exhaust problems without recall

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DETROIT — The U.S. Government Road Safety Agency has closed a more than six-year investigation into exhaust odors in Ford Explorer passenger cabins.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it reviewed more than 6,500 consumer complaints, field-tested SUVs and engaged experts in automotive, medical care, environmental health and occupational safety before making its decision.

The probe covered nearly 1.5 million Explorers from model years 2011 to 2017 and included complaints of illness and accidents that killed three and reportedly injured 657. Many complaints came from police departments using Explorer Police Interceptors as patrol vehicles.

But the agency said in documents released Monday that it used rigorous testing methods to direct exhaust fumes into vehicles. No explorer with bodies sealed as part of a 2017 Ford field service campaign had carbon monoxide levels exceeding Environmental Protection Agency limits.

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The agency determined that sealing problems resulting from the installation of sirens, lights, cages and other items were responsible for the highest levels of carbon monoxide measured in vehicles it tested. The highest carbon monoxide levels in consumer vehicles were usually traced to sealing problems caused by repairs after rear damage, according to NHTSA.

Even without Ford’s seal repairs, no vehicles without crash damage or equipment installed had carbon monoxide levels exceeding acceptable levels, the agency wrote. “Therefore, the agency has not determined a defect that poses an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety,” the agency wrote.

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The agency said it received thousands of reports of alleged odors causing a variety of reactions, primarily nausea, headaches and dizziness. NHTSA said it has focused its research on accurately measuring the carbon monoxide and carboxyhemoglobin levels of vehicles based on “properly conducted blood tests.”

Initially, Ford only offered the seal repairs for emergency vehicles, but later expanded the repairs to civilian versions after thousands of complaints about fumes leaking into passenger cabins. Mechanics at the dealerships had to check the tailgate gaskets and drain cocks for leaks. If leaks were found, they were sealed to prevent vapors from entering. The heating and ventilation systems were also reprogrammed to let in more fresh air.

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Even after the repairs were made, NHTSA continued to receive complaints about exhaust odors in the Explorers.

At one point in 2017, the Austin, Texas Police Department took 400 Explorer Police vehicles out of service due to concerns about carbon monoxide in the cabins. But the department put them back on patrol after Ford made repairs to exhaust tips and fixed lift gates and other issues.

NHTSA also said it had investigated cracked exhaust manifolds and tested the service campaign repairs to make sure they didn’t affect cabin smoke levels.

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