Making a mistake while trying to remedy an earlier one is a routine part of the human condition. We’re imperfect creatures and sometimes the easiest solution after a string of foulups is to just sweep something under the rug and hope nobody ever bothers to look there — even though they probably will. Incredibly, this logic can spread to an entire organization and with roughly the same effectiveness.
Earlier this week, Ford issued a safety recall on select Focuses manufactured within the last decade (1.5 million were recalled previously). But not before becoming the subject of a scathing report from the Detroit Free Press claiming the automaker knew the cars had bunk transmissions and did everything in its power to keep that under wraps in order to continue selling them.
The report is brutal and includes supportive internal documents, court records, and corporate communications garnered through a lengthy investigation. The culprit of this drama is the Ford PowerShift (DPS6/Getrag 6DCT250) transmission found in third-gen Focuses (MY 2011-2018) and sixth-gen Fiestas (2011–2019). You might recall that both cars were subjected to class-action lawsuits from around the globe and routine complaints at home over their wonky, dual-clutch transmissions.
While Ford issued a few recalls on the vehicles, including the most-recent one, the transmission was never officially a part of them. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration even looked into the matter in 2014, but Ford seemingly convincing it that the issue was the result of wear and tear — not a manufacturing defect. However customers were complaining about power losses, cars randomly shifting into neutral, and sudden acceleration immediately after both vehicles went on sale.
Apparently, Ford was fully aware of the problem and was even working in a clandestine manner to find a way to fix it. But the cars went — and remained — on sale, despite the company being advised against it by both engineers and its legal council.
From the Detroit Free Press:
The automaker pushed past company lawyers’ early safety questions and a veteran development engineer’s warning that the cars weren’t roadworthy, internal emails and documents show. Ford then declined, after the depth of the problem was obvious, to make an expensive change in the transmission technology.
Instead, the company kept trying to find a fix for the faulty transmission for five years while complaints and costs piled up. In the interim, Ford officials prepared talking points for dealers to tell customers that the cars operated normally when, in fact, internal documents are peppered with safety concerns and descriptions of the defects.
Some of the earliest stem from 2008, when Ford’s lawyers told engineers they were worried about the safety of dual-clutch technology, which had previously given Volkswagen some serious headaches. But the cars were being developed in the midst of the recession, discouraging Ford from making a costly, last-minute change. Instead, the automaker openly proclaimed the DPS6 as a breakthrough in performance and economy.
That same year, Ford quality supervisor Johann Kirchhoffer told the lawyers that a transmission slipping into neutral wasn’t a big deal in itself. “We have evidence that VW had a recall of a number of transmissions with a potential ‘Unintended Neutral’ occurring with low volumes,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We are pursuing any effort to reduce the occurrence of an ‘Unintended Neutral’ event to a so-called ‘Broadly Acceptable level.’”
The back and forth continued, bringing in more voices, but the Fiesta went on sale with the transmission anyway. At the time, it was unclear what had been done to remedy the issue. However, the matter came around again when the it came time to install the transmission into the Focus.
In 2010, product development engineer Tom Langeland told supervisors that something was desperately wrong with the car. He criticized the vehicle for having a “nasty launch judder” and too much vibration. “We also cannot achieve a driveable calibration that will get us to production,” he said. “The clutch torque delivery MUST BE IMPROVED.”
One month before the Focus was to be shipped to dealers, Craig Renneker, then acting director of transmission and driveline engineering, e-mailed Richard Bonifas, a customer service manager at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne. “The 2012 Focus vehicles equipped with the DPS6 transmission may experience a shudder/shake on start up or when slowing to a stop … ship the vehicles to the dealers with the level of shudder we currently have and continue our efforts towards a permanent resolution ASAP,” Renneker wrote in February of 2011. “That’s just my opinion and it’s not a popular one.”
Problems turned out to be even more prevalent on the Focus than they were with the Fiesta, sending customers back to the dealership in large volumes. Fed up with no solution from the factory, it wasn’t long until service centers started expressing their frustrations as well.
“I’m tired of looking like the bad guy for repairing all these DPS6 transmissions, when truthfully Ford’s the bad guy here,” read a 2013 e-mail from a Jacksonville, Florida, dealership. “Let’s be honest. Ford produces a horrible product and we trans guys get the wrath of it. My warranty clerk thinks I’m insane and it’s like pulling teeth to get paid for all the work we have to do on these things. The input shaft seals are only good for about 10K miles at best. And by replacing them as well as the clutch, the car’s only going to return again and again and again. I do 4 or 5 a week on average … I would love to know how Ford intends to fix this.”
Those are just the juiciest bits. The full report outlines many more examples of internal conflict at Ford surrounding the gearbox and we strongly urge you to read them. They include examples how the automaker tried to cope with the financial headaches associated with the DPS6, testing protocols, warranty extensions, legal actions taken, some regulatory oversight, and lots of infighting.
Ford’s official response to the story has been that it handled the matter responsibly and ultimately ensured a good product was brought to market — maintaining that DSP6-equipped cars are safe. It also released a statement to the Free Press regarding the investigation on Wednesday:
In 2011 and 2012, Ford was excited and proud to introduce an innovative, all-new transmission that delivered higher fuel efficiency and had a smaller environmental footprint. Development of the transmission presented challenges common to innovative new technology. Those challenges were raised in normal exchanges inside Ford and with Getrag, the maker of the transmission.
Based on rigorous testing during development, we were confident in the transmission and our ability to address any quality issues that might arise with the new technology. Some consumers, accustomed to traditional automatic transmissions, found the shifting pattern of the new, fuel-efficient automatic transmission unusual and raised questions with their dealers. By design, the new transmission, also an automatic, shifted more like a manual transmission. In places where manual transmissions were still more common, related consumer inquiries were much lower.
After the new transmission was on the road, other problems developed. We acted quickly and determinedly to investigate the problems, alert dealers, recommend and pay for repairs, and extend warranties. While we eventually resolved the quality issues, the solutions were more complex and took longer than we expected. We regret the inconvenience and frustration that caused some consumers.
Along the way, we identified and discussed a range of possible remedies, including switching to an entirely different transmission. We believed the decisions we made at different points to correct the problems were best for consumers. While we have addressed quality problems with the transmission, vehicles in which it was installed were and remain safe.
[Image: Ford Motor Co.]