Feds Eye Vehicle Safety

Wednesday, February 27, 2013 @ 04:02 PM gHale

Investigations are launching into the safety of automobiles from various manufacturers, federal officials said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) started a series of safety investigations targeting nearly 1.3 million Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. vehicles.

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Federal regulators said they have not decided whether recalls are necessary but the NHTSA is getting more aggressive when it comes to ordering manufacturers to resolve safety-related problems.

In once case, Toyota’s Prius – the nation’s best-selling hybrid – is the target of one of the new investigations. Well over half a million (561,000) of the hybrids are the topic of the investigation, with NHTSA probing reports the assembly of the vehicles’ steering shafts was improper.

The investigation focuses on Prius hybrids built between 2004 and 2009. Many of them were already the target of a previous Toyota recall involving steering shaft defects. That previous recall, announced last November covered 669,000 Prius hybrids also sold during the 2004 to 2009 model-years. According to the government, parts connected to the steering assembly could deform if a driver makes frequent, aggressive turns at low speeds.

The Prius was also a part of an earlier steering-related recall that could cause loss of vehicle control. That service action covered 170,000 of the hybrids produced between 2004 and 2006.

If NHTSA orders a recall of the Prius it would prove a double black eye for the maker. The hybrid is the brand’s halo car, essential to its claims of being the “greenest” manufacturer in the industry. But it would also mark another major recall for a brand that has traditional been viewed as a quality benchmark.

In 2012, Toyota had the most vehicles recalled of any brand in the U.S. market, the third time it achieved that dubious distinction in four years. And it has already had 1 million vehicles recalled since the beginning of 2013.

Meanwhile, NHTSA separately launched an investigation of 724,000 Ford Escape, Fusion and Mercury Mariner and Milan models, triggered by 123 reports the vehicles have experienced unexpected losses of power or completely stalled.
The problem could be the result of several issues including contaminated printed circuit boards and faulty throttle body assemblies. Vehicles produced between 2009 and 2011 are involved in the investigation.

The size of the investigation could also prove embarrassing to Ford which has been struggling to maintain a reputation for quality after seeing its scores drop in recent years in such key owner surveys as the 2012 J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey.

The investigation started with a formal complaint filed by the North Carolina Consumers Council. That group has been focusing on automotive safety issues, and has triggered several recalls and investigations.

The smallest of the three new NHTSA investigations targets 87,000 Honda Pilots produced for the 2005 model-year. The government agency received 205 reports of unexpectedly severe braking that could be the result of a faulty sensor in the crossover-utility vehicle’s Vehicle Stability Assist system.

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