I designed TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey to provide information an average of ten months ahead of the established annual surveys. Early last December we shared with TTAC readers that ”Early data on the Ford Fiesta is not good.” Then, in early March, we stated about the 2011 Fiesta and the 2010 Taurus that ”Ford does not appear to have tested either model thoroughly enough.” The late February release on the TrueDelta site went a step farther, asking, “Is Ford slipping?” The answer last week from Ford: “Yes, but we’re going to fix it.”
The official Ford line, as conveyed through Automotive News: we’re being open about our “tech glitches” because, in the words of CEO Alan Mulally, “You can’t manage a secret.” But what is Ford trying to manage by being open about quality problems? Not the problems themselves—it’s possible to be open about problems inside a company without going to the press about them. Instead, they’re trying to manage something outside the company: public perceptions.
Why now? Because later this month J.D. Power will release its annual Initial Quality Survey (IQS) results, and Ford knows that its scores are going to be significantly worse than in the past. The reason stated in the Automotive News article: glitches in the new “MyFord Touch” touchscreen-based control system. Because the IQS combines usability problems and mechanical problems (something we’ve criticized the survey for in the past), a hard to use control system will harm a car’s score even if nothing is technically wrong with it. BMW’s scores have suffered ever since it introduced iDrive.
The article refers to Consumer Reports as well, and drew on their auto chief David Champion for a couple of quotes. But, in noting that CR dropped its recommendation for the Ford Edge “in part because of the controls,” the author doesn’t seem to realize that CR’s road test evaluations and its reliability survey are two entirely separate entities. While MyFord Touch might fail the former, it could very well have no impact on the latter.
What will have an impact on CR’s reliability survey results, which will be next be updated in October: the problems noted in TrueDelta’s survey, and that aren’t mentioned at all in the Automotive News article despite Ford’s “openness.” Things like the chrome finish flaking off the taillights on the Taurus and Fiestas that won’t start, whose fuel gauges don’t read correctly, or (in fewer but more serious cases) whose dual clutch automated manual transmissions fail. The Taurus problem is admittedly minor, but it nevertheless indicates a faulty product development process. Proper testing would have discovered that the finish would peel off the taillights in less than a year. Similarly, proper testing would have found that a poor ground would lead to no-starts in the Fiesta, and that the fuel gauges in the car were often failing to read correctly. If these common problems that appear early on were missed, what else has been missed?
These glitches aren’t entirely a new development. Earlier, the 2007 Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX suffered from very common failures to the seals of their AWD units, often multiple times with the same car—and this problem persisted for at least three model years. The 2008 Taurus has commonly had problems with its front struts. And the revision to the Fusion for 2010 created transmission driveability problems where none had existed before—and which have proven hard to fix. But the Fiesta has been the least reliable new Ford in some time, with multiple common problems (that have nothing to do with MyFord Touch). And as the first Ford of Europe car to be transplanted to North America under Mulally’s “One Ford” program it could presage problems with the 2012 Focus and upcoming Escape and Fusion replacements.
Someone within Ford is certainly aware of these other problems that have nothing to do with “tech glitches.” Mulally himself is likely aware of them; otherwise, he’s got an even bigger problem on his hands. If Mulally is aware of these problems, he realizes that they will impact the IQS this month and Consumer Reports survey results in the fall. But Ford’s professed openness didn’t extend to discussing these other problems with Automotive News. Instead, they focused on debugging MyFord Touch and installing new robots to improve the precision of panel fits. It’s not hard to imagine why. This way, when those poor scores come out, journalists and the broader public they inform might think that they’re due to buggy software and panel fits, and not anything more serious.
Ford might buy themselves a little time this way. But if they want to maintain the reputation for quality they worked so hard to achieve, they must address the true scope of the problem. Mo’ better robots aren’t going to do the trick now any more than they did for Roger Smith’s GM. Their product development process needs fixing.