They knew the truth and kept quiet.
Their secret wasnâ€™t a secret at all in engineering, product development, research, design or manufacturing within Ford Motor Co., say sevenÂ current and former employees who worked to develop and launch the Fiesta and Focus cars that would become known for defective automatic transmissions.
An engineer who played a key role in developing the popular Fiesta and Focus
You think of the gentleman who stood up for the space shuttle Challenger, saying if they launched that with the ice on it that itâ€™s going to blow up. Well, these kinds of really horrific technical errors seemed to pass right through at Ford on this project.
â€œMy hands are dirty. I feel horrible,â€ said an engineer who played a key role in developing the popular compact cars.
â€œYou think of the gentleman who stood up for the space shuttle Challenger, saying if they launched that with the ice on it that itâ€™s going to blow up. Well, these kinds of really horrific technical errors seemed to pass right through at Ford on this project,â€ the engineer said.
Asked whether the company ignored early warnings from its experts, Ford said the “vehicles were safe when they were introduced after rigorous testing during development, and remain so today after more than a decade on the road and billions of miles accumulated by customers around the globe.”Â
More: Ford knew Focus, Fiesta models had flawed transmission, sold them anyway
The engineer said: â€œWeâ€™d raise our hands and be told, â€˜Donâ€™t be naysayers.â€™ We got strange comments. It seemed the ship had sailed. After that, if you askÂ questions, youâ€™re accused of mutiny, so you put your head down and make it work. Good people tried to make it work. But you canâ€™t violate the laws of physics. Itâ€™s a mechanical catastrophe.â€
He was referring to the DPS6 dual-clutch “PowerShift” transmissionÂ used in 2 million Focus and Fiesta cars sold this decade that is the subject of massive litigation and a federal criminal fraud probe.
“It was cheap to make and cheap to assemble,” the engineer said, but because the DPS6 used “dry” clutch technology, it couldn’t cool itself, ensuring failures in real-world use.
Mark Fields, then Ford president for the Americas, right, and Olympic skier Johnny Moseley pose with the 2012 model year Ford Focus made its debut…
Mark Fields, then Ford president for the Americas, right, and Olympic skier Johnny Moseley pose with the 2012 model year Ford Focus made its debut at the LA Auto Show in November 2010. Fields was deposed this year in one set of lawsuits over the Focus and Fiesta transmissions. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Reed Saxon, AP
A Free Press investigation published in July found that Ford knew the DPS6 was defectiveÂ before putting it on the market and later rejected a plan to stop using it.Â
After publication of the “Out of Gear” investigation, Ford insiders reached out to provide previously unseen company documents and firsthand accounts about the carsâ€™ development and the companyâ€™s efforts to cover up the problems. The sources and documentsÂ describe a fearful atmosphere within Ford that led to silence and, in one case, downgrading the risk assessment of the DPS6 clutch and control unit “due to political reasons.”Â
The vehicles have saddled the company with an estimated $3 billionÂ in warranty costs plus legal expenses from thousands of lawsuits â€” losses still adding up as court cases play out and customers continue to report problems, including in weekly calls and emails to the Free Press. A month after publication of Out of Gear, Ford extended the clutch warranty on about 600,000 of the cars not covered by a 2014 extension. In October, Ford cited that extended warranty relief as a factor denting company profits.Â
On top of everything, U.S. Department of Justice fraud investigators opened a probe into Ford’s conductÂ involving the transmission dating to 2010.Â It subpoenaed material earlier this yearÂ seeking to learn whether the company knew the transmissions were defective and couldn’t be fixed and whetherÂ it lied to federal safety regulators.Â
‘A life of its own’
Engineers and others involved in the Fiesta and Focus programs told the Free Press that speaking up during development of the vehicles was fruitless. They say they feared losing their jobsÂ during the dramatic economic downturn that chased General Motors and Chrysler into bankruptcy.
â€œThis thing, in engineering terms, had its own momentum,â€ said aÂ veteran engineer who attended hundreds of meetings involving the vehicles.Â â€œAll of a sudden, the project took on a life of its own and off it went.â€
The low-priced vehicles, introduced when gas was touching $4 a gallon and Americans were reeling from the Great Recession, were marketed as having the fuel economy and acceleration of a manual transmission with the operational ease of an automatic. Today, thousands of owners are suing because they have taken their cars to repair shops so often.Â A class-action settlement valued at $35 million is under review in U.S. District Court in California to determine whether it is fair to owners. About 13,000 individual lawsuits are pending.Â
Many of the vehicles shudder, sometimes violently, and can shiftÂ erratically, accelerate unevenly and lurch unpredictably. The transmissions are designed to default to neutral when certain problems occur, which causesÂ drivers to lose drive power. Consumers have filed more than 4,300 complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety AdministrationÂ that include reports of 50 injuries, but both Ford and NHTSA regulators say the vehicles do not pose an unreasonable safety risk. The cars have never been recalled for transmission repair.Â Â
A 2016 “SECRET” report showed increasing litigation and frequent repairs related to the Ford Fiesta and Focus transmission. (Highlighting by Free Press)
Ford saysÂ the litigation is the work of greedy lawyers eager to line their pockets through frivolous claims. The company alleges that the Free Press investigation is driven by those lawyers when it in fact arises from Ford whistleblowers and hundreds of consumers from across the country.Â
“Selecting and attempting to draw conclusions from a few documents out of millions turned over to trial lawyers distorts the facts,” spokesman Said Deep said in a statement to the Free Press on Monday. “Government agencies in the U.S. and globally have repeatedly looked at DPS6 data and have not found a safety issue.”
From July through November, the Free Press interviewed engineers in product development and others who took part in bringing theÂ cars to market. These expertsÂ outlined serious transmission issues identified prior to the manufacture and sale of the vehicles.
â€˜What are you thinking?â€™Â
The transmissionsÂ were introduced in the 2011 model year Fiesta, which went to dealerships in the spring of 2010,Â and 2012 Focus, which went on the market a year later. They were used until the Focus was discontinued with the 2018 model year and through the 2019 Fiesta model year.
Among things the Department of Justice Fraud Division investigation seeks to learn, according to a grand jury subpoena obtained by the Free Press in November, is whether Ford knew that the DPS6 transmissions were defective â€œand could not be repaired or made to comply with Fordâ€™s warranty obligations and/or with the ownerâ€™s reasonable expectations.â€
The status of the grand jury investigation is unknown; the agency declined to comment. Asked about the probe, Ford said that it routinely cooperates with authorities.
The seven Ford insiders interviewed for this article include engineers present for planning meetings as far back as 2006 and some people still employed by the company. One engineer still has his paper calendar entries listing who attended crisis meetings inÂ 2010.
They shared detailed experiences on the condition that they not be named because they fear being identified could threaten their current jobs and their ability to work in the auto industry in the future. Information the insiders provided in separate interviews was consistent with each othersâ€™ accounts andÂ with internal Ford documents and emails the Free Press obtained during its investigation.
Some of the engineers and product designers say they agreed to talk because spouses and religious advisers suggested it might help easeÂ feelings of guilt andÂ their worry about the safety ofÂ drivers today.
“I told one friend if he loved his stepdaughter, he’d get her out of that Fiesta as quick as possible,” one of the company’s mechanical experts said on Nov. 25. “I wouldn’t put my kid in one of those cars.”
About 1.5 million of the cars remain registered in the United States.Â
An engineer said, â€œWe saw problems with this transmission design years before production.â€Â
During development, thermal testing showed the transmissions’ limits, and Ford began working on software in an attempt toÂ mitigate the problems.Â
At the root of the problem was Fordâ€™s decision to use dry clutch technology for the transmission. The guts of a dual-clutch transmission are more like a manual than a conventional automatic transmission, but the driver does not have to shift gears. These transmissions can improve fuel economy and weigh less than a conventional automatic â€” and also are less expensive to build.
There are two kinds of dual-clutch transmissions: wet-clutch and dry-clutch. The difference is whether oil lubricates the clutches. The DPS6 was a dry-clutch design.
â€œWhat in the world are you thinking going with a dry clutch?â€ one engineer asked. â€œThe friction coefficient is inconsistent and it creates problems. But this was someoneâ€™s baby. If a manager came up with an idea, people would be afraid to say no. At first, it was just on paper. Someone should have said something. They should have. The idea shouldâ€™ve been killed. No one knew how it was even considered â€” and then implemented â€” in the Focus and Fiesta.
â€œBut they got to this point in the product development cycle where Ford realized they passed the point of no return. They spent a ton of money and hereâ€™s this giant problem,â€ the engineer said. â€œHow do you solve it? They had implemented the flawed transmission and any fix was going to be super expensive.”
Ford lawyers did raise at least one worry early on: the potential for the transmission to slip into neutral without warning. Fordâ€™s Office of General Counsel in 2008 challenged engineers on the risk, arguing that the condition could lead to costly recalls if the technology was used for the first time in mass production vehicles.Â
More: US fraud prosecutors demand Ford Focus, Fiesta documents
More: Ford secretly tells dealers: Fix faulty Focus, Fiesta transmissions until July 19
We meant for that to happen
Addressing lawyersâ€™ concerns, Ford quality supervisor Johann Kirchhoffer wrote in an email on June 27, 2008, that stalling â€œalone is not hazardous.â€Â
â€œWe have evidence that VW had a recall of a number ofÂ (similar) transmissions with a potential â€˜Unintended Neutralâ€™ occurring with low volumes,â€ he wrote. â€œWe are pursuing any effort to reduce the occurrence of an â€˜Unintended Neutralâ€™ event to a so-called â€˜Broadly Acceptable level.â€™â€
The solution, engineers told the Free Press, was to make neutral an intended fail safe to keep a transmission fromÂ burning up or locking up from overheating or an electrical communications glitch. The company has consistently maintained that the neutral state is not a safety hazard because the car doesn’t lose steering, braking or turn signals.Â
The whistleblowing engineers told the Free Press the strategy was extraordinary and a poor approach.
“It was just a Band-Aid,” an engineer said.
In other automatic transmissions, Ford had used a “limp home” strategy, so if something wasn’t working right, the car wouldÂ have some â€œtractiveâ€ force. Engineers would install technology to limit engine speed and torque but a driver couldÂ still get some power from pushing the accelerator.
The engineers said defaulting to neutral is unsafe. Several Free Press interviews with drivers and complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration describe terror from the experience of losing acceleration on the highway or, for example, when merging onto a freeway.
The neutral state was explored in depth during development and clearly was seen as a potential defect, a key engineer said.
It became a focus of attention again in 2014, the same year NHTSA questioned Ford about the transmissions.Â
Roger Pline, DPS6 transmission system supervisor in Livonia, emailed Kirchhoffer on April 2, 2014: â€œPlease send me the portion of the System FMEA that deals with MAM issues and the need to open the clutches. Need tonight or tomorrow.â€Â
â€œOpen the clutchesâ€ refers to, in effect, putting the transmission in neutral.
â€œFMEAâ€ is failure mode and effects analysis, a system used by automakers and suppliers meant to ensure that potential problems have been addressed duringÂ product development. It includes a risk assessment system that ranks the severity of potential problems from 1 (â€œvery minor effectâ€) to 10 (â€œFailure is hazardous and occurs without warningÂ â€¦ involves noncompliance with government regulations.â€). In DPS6 discussions, engineers abbreviate severity as SEV.
â€œMAMâ€ is the mechatronic actuation module, which controls the DPS6â€™s two clutches and shifts the gears.Â
The situation had Ford lawyersâ€™ attention. Kirchhofferâ€™s responses to the April 2 email, which included technical documentation, didnâ€™t satisfy Pline, who emailed with HIGH importance on April 29: â€œIâ€™ve been through these documents, but have not found what Iâ€™m looking for. Can you point me to the location in the FMEA that if the MAM loses power or communication that we open both clutches? I need to show our legal team that this is the proper intended function for this hardware.â€
Kirchhoffer referred Pline to â€œfinalâ€ FMEA severity classifications. The Free Press has corrected typos in an excerpt of Kirchhofferâ€™s reply: â€œPlease note also that the mechanical FMEAs drive the end electrical failure modes as an effect and carry the highest electrical SEV classification. This drives the MAM up to the highest criticality! On the wiring harness we have kept â€˜unintended neutral/roll backâ€™ as SEV 10, which we did NOT on the clutch and MAM due to political reasons. However, we have treated neutral states as SEV 10 item in the background.
â€œ… Please raise the flag if you need more help. I agree â€” this is a rather complex area!â€
In this 2014 email excerpt, Ford engineer Johann Kirchhoffer describes â€œfailure mode and effects analysisâ€ severity ratings. Kirchhoffer discussed â€œpoliticalâ€ influence on the ratings to a supervisor who was seeking information for company lawyers.
Obtained by the Free Press
We asked the Ford insiders what Kirchhoffer likely meant by â€œpolitical reasons.â€Â
â€œHe was being threatened by somebody,â€ a former senior engineer surmised.
â€œSomebody might have told him that if you declare the thing a ’10,’ which would lead to a safety recall,â€ he would lose the project. If itâ€™s an 8, well, theyâ€™ve pulled that on us before. They could keep not being truthful to each other and pretend it would work and then theyâ€™d still have jobs. Itâ€™s â€˜politicsâ€™ all through everything on these ratings.â€
Later in 2014, amid discussions with NHTSA that focused on the neutral state that Ford blamed on a solder crack, the company extended the drivetrain warranty to seven years/100,000 miles on Focus and Fiestas built before mid-2013 and added a dashboard warning light to tell drivers the transmission is at risk of malfunction. The latter move was described in company documents as something that â€œwill more easily satisfy NHTSAâ€™s requirements.â€Â The agency chose not to open a formal investigation.
Ford also has extended the warranty on the transmission control unit to 10 years/150,000 miles.
This summer, a month after publication of Out of Gear and amid renewed NHTSA scrutiny, Ford extended the drivetrain warranty on cars built between mid-2013 and 2016. Ford remains overwhelmed with repair needs. This fall, Ford dealers have networked in an attempt to find mechanics to work full time on DPS6 repairs.Â
Among the issues the Department of Justice is examining is whether Ford misrepresented the nature of DPS6 defects to federal regulators.Â
A shaky launch
Insiders who drove early production vehicles said serious problems were obvious right away.Â
Having worked on the projects for years, one engineer said, â€œI took a production vehicle home overnight for an evaluation drive. It started warming up and it accelerated away from our parking lot. Fine. Then it stopped at a red light, then I went to accelerate fairly moderately and it felt like I got rear-ended by someone. The car just shot forward and there was a big boom, but no one had hit me. It was the transmission.â€
The company was scrambling, he said. â€œThey needed to get the vehicle on the road while they were still developing software.â€
Another engineer explained the effort: â€œThey had problems with the launch and shift quality. They even had an elaborate program where initial Fiestas had to go on a drive route by Greenfield Village for adaptive learning for the (transmission) control module. It was a panic situation. They were trying to develop software to handle the glitches. Obviously, they were never able to. They were trying to rush software out to deal with the problem of vehicle performance and shifting.â€Â
AÂ veteran engineer described the coding efforts: â€œThey masked things using computer software language. One guy was able to modulate a clutch in a way that torque released so it masked the problem. Management latched onto it. Not only can we mask problems, but we can fake success. They started to write software to mask problems. But there’s no way you can software your way out of a physics problem.â€
Said a seasoned mechanical expert on whom Ford depended for project direction, â€œI was driving a Fiesta during the launch, and it wasnâ€™t right.”
â€œIt couldnâ€™t figure out what gear it wanted to be in, then it kept hesitating. That sucker would not go into any gear. The transmission revved all the way up and finally found the gear. I had to pull over and swerve so I wouldnâ€™t get hit. It wouldnâ€™t shift.Â I think it actually dropped into neutral,â€ he said.
â€œEverybody knew they had problems,â€ the mechanical expert said.Â â€œThey were rushing into production and things werenâ€™t ready yet.â€
While customers reported transmission problems with the 2011 FiestaÂ â€” 313 complaints were filed with federal regulators, a high number â€”Â troubles mushroomed with release of the 2012 Focus. The Focus was more than 300 pounds heavier than the Fiesta and demanded more of the transmission. Buyers of the 2012 Focus filed an extraordinary 1,130 transmission complaints with NHTSA and started flooding dealership repair departments. Consumer Reports in October 2011 lowered Fordâ€™s reliability rating, in part because of the transmission.Â
That month, secret Ford documents show, the company made a preliminary decision to abandon the transmission, but also noted that the decision would delay launch of future model years, add production and factory costs and reduce fuel economy. The idea was scratched.