By on February 27, 2017

2011 Ford Flex

It’s getting harder to ignore automotive safety recalls, but it’s easy for one to go unnoticed if it’s handed down after the owner buys a vehicle used.

While the circumstances surrounding the purchase of a vehicle involved in last weekend’s incident in Lake St. Clair aren’t clear, one thing is: the owner had no knowledge of a nearly two-year-old power steering recall. On the surface (so to speak), this seems to be the culprit behind the saga of the USS Ford Flex.

Vehicle mishaps that drivers walks away from rarely makes headlines, but it’s a different story when occupants swim away from them.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the 16-year-old male driver of a 2011 Ford Flex didn’t abandon ship after his vehicle’s steering “locked” while attempting to maneuver around a vehicle turning just ahead of him. A bad situation, for sure, but made much worse by the immediate proximity of a lake.

The teen, Nolan Mullins, was driving north in the left lane of Lake Shore Road in Grosse Pointe Shores when the car ahead slowed for the turn. When Mullins passed it on the right, the SUV apparently liked the new direction and shook off any attempts to change course.

“I tried shaking the wheel, and I couldn’t get it to move,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “It wouldn’t move.”

The teen claims to have been driving 30 miles per hour, which could be true, thought the speed limit on that stretch is 35 mph and people like the left lane for a reason. (Not that that has anything to do with the apparent glitch.)

The Ford Flex isn’t a lightweight, and braking is never good on grassy inclines, so the Blue Oval brick ended up in the drink. Like classic Volkswagens of yore, the SUV didn’t sink immediately, leaving Mullins time to get out. Unfortunately, a combination of residual momentum and environmental factors — there was an offshore wind, it seems — prompted the vehicle to flex its nautical muscles.

Rather than swim for it, Mullins camped out on the mercifully flat roof as the vehicle drifted away from land. It was about 40 yards offshore — and adding distance — when phone calls mobilized the local Coast Guard detachment. Plucked from the watery Flex by boat, Mullins suffered only mild hypothermia. The Flex, however, probably won’t live to sail another day.

While a cause of the incident hasn’t been determined, Mullins’ observations point to power steering failure. In such an event, “shaking” the wheel isn’t going to do anything, but applying steady force in the direction you want to go stands a good chance of yielding better results. The vehicle’s owner, Lisa Mullins, said she was unaware of an existing recall for just such an issue.

Back in June 2015, Ford recalled 400,000 vehicles, including the 2011 Flex, to address a slew of complaints related to the sudden failure of the vehicles’ power steering assist. The automaker attributes the failures to a steering motor sensor fault.

[Image: Ford Motor Company]

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24 Comments on “An Unknown Recall Can Lead to a Coast Guard Rescue...”

  • avatar

    My better half owns an ’11 Flex. After the piss-poor (i.e. cursory this side of non-existent) repair to the PTU the dealership did and called it good, I’m wondering if their service dept. ran through all TSBs before tossing it out on the lots.

  • avatar
    Corey Lewis

    I can see where someone would not be aware of the recall notice, if they went through the mail like my mom does.

    Must be junk mail, I don’t want a new Ford! Just pitch it.

  • avatar
    Big Al From 'Murica

    They have websites to run your VIN through and check for recalls. I do it when I change the oil. This isn’t rocket science and generally takes all of 30 seconds. Hell there is probably an app or something.

    • 0 avatar
      Corey Lewis

      A lot of people:

      1) Are not aware that the online option exists.
      2) Would not understand how to get their VIN.

      • 0 avatar

        One thing about getting oil changes done at the dealer is that they will constantly and consistently remind you that there are outstanding recalls (at least the local Toyota dealer does.) Unfortunately they just direct you to call the service dept. It would be nice if there was some kind of simpatico thing going on where they would assist you in setting up an appointment right then and there.

        • 0 avatar

          The dealer where I take my car always checks for recalls when I call in for an oil change appointment. They also do any software updates.

          My car currently has an open recall to get the cell modem changed in it. 40 years ago when I started driving, i surely never thought I’d be saying that.

      • 0 avatar
        Big Al From 'Murica

        Yeah I bet most of those people are aware of what the resolution on there freaking selfie cam is. This is an essential part of maintaining a vehicle.

    • 0 avatar
      Adam Tonge

      Even if this recall was done properly the first time, it is possible that the power steering could have still failed. If the vehicle hasn’t had an incident there the power steering locked up dealers reflash the sensor. If that doesn’t work, the sensor gets replaced.

      • 0 avatar
        Big Al From 'Murica

        Agreed. It may have failed anyway. I just hate the “I never got a letter” crap.

      • 0 avatar

        How can they tell if replacing the sensor fixed the problem if it never failed?

        There were three versions of the problem, with three solutions: a data flash, a sensor module replacement, and replacement of the whole steering column. As Ford worked into this they got better at determining which approach was appropriate. Which means that some of the early repairs were followed by another failure.

        • 0 avatar
          Adam Tonge

          On our vehicle, the sensor was reflashed as part of the recall. The prior owner had not reported any issues, per the dealership. When the power steering actually failed while my wife was driving, the dealership replaced the sensor.

          So they just go cheapest to most expensive. I assume if it happens again they’ll just replace the whole steering column. Well, unless they have a handle on which VINs need what.

  • avatar

    The dealer for my Mazda is constantly trying to get me in for my airbag recall – he just wants to get my money for service since they do not have the parts and wont for some time.

  • avatar

    Occam’s razor tells me that the kid wasn’t used to no power assist and he lost control of the vehicle. I suspect someone’s lawyer found out about the recall and is exploiting the fact that almost nobody drives a car or truck without power steering so they don’t know that at road speeds little power assist is needed.

    There is a big difference between losing power assist and the steering locking up. Even in a vehicle as heavy as a Flex, at 30 mph steeing effort should be fairly minimal even without power assist. The electric assist may fail but the steering column is still connected to the rack & pinion.

    There was a time when you could buy a full size American sedan without power steering. Admittedly cars are heavier today but you should still be able to control a car if the power steering unit fails. I suppose it’s possible that an electric assist might have fault modes you wouldn’t find with a hydraulic assist. If any of you engineers out there could explain how a failed electric assist sensor could result in the steering locking, that’d be appreciated.

    • 0 avatar

      My Escape had this failure before the recall and before I knew about the problem. I thought somehow both front tires had suddenly gone flat. Since I misunderstood what was wrong and since I’m old enough to have driven vehicles without power steering, I was able to muscle it to a safe place. Believe me, cars designed with power steering are much harder to steer when it fails than cars that never had the assist. Many of these failures were reported as the steering locking up.

      And since then I had a bolt that attached the steering shaft to the coupler come loose and almost fall off before it was fixed. (Lots of things on the front ends of these vehicles can rattle.) There is no recall, yet, for this one.

    • 0 avatar

      Is there any evidence of these steering systems actually locking and not just losing assist?

      I’m skeptical that a loss of power assist at speed would have much of an effect on anyone beyond maybe a 90 pound, 90-year-old woman. It would take so little additional force to make the wheel turn that it’s hard to imagine a driver just giving up on trying to steer and shaking the wheel instead.

      My buddy drove his 7000+ lb diesel Ram 2500 for a bit with no power steering. It took some serious effort to maneuver it in parking lots, but wasn’t difficult at speed. That thing was on 315/70R17 tires and even has relatively quick steering compared to his current-gen 1500.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s clear he didn’t even try to force/muscle the steering wheel, especially if he’s never experienced a steering wheel he couldn’t easily turn with just a pinky finger, and automatically thought “It’s Locked!!!”

        My “problem” is I’m so used to power brakes, I thought the ’59 Cadillac I was driving around a parking lot, had “lost all its brakes!” when I gently touched them. I started to panic for a split second.

        But I regained composure and stepped on them hard.

        • 0 avatar

          I’ve had that feeling a couple times, DenverMike. The first was as a teenager. We had a “loaded” 4-door Chevette with power brakes among our pool of vehicles. My father regularly picked up other inexpensive vehicles for short-term use before resale, and he happened to pick up a more basic 2-door Chevette at the same time. I took that for a drive one day and thought it had lost its brakes the first time I approached a stop sign. The force I was used to applying on any previous vehicle provided almost no braking effect. But I braked harder and it did stop. I then played around and found that it was possible to lock the brakes, but took a lot of strength to do so. I mentioned this to my father and he concluded that they were unsafe. He installed the brake booster off a junkyard unit before selling it.

          The second time was driving a Formula Mazda race car at Bondurant. The first time we were set free on-track after a couple of warm up laps, my brakes were still quite cold and I almost thought they weren’t going to stop me at the end of a straight. There was seemingly no pedal travel at all once they engaged, but I pushed harder and the car did slow. I learned to love those brakes. Once the brakes were engaged, they responded proportionally to varying levels of force without the pedal moving, thus providing a stable platform for heel-toeing. No perceptible flex or mushiness at all. I immediately realized why it had been so hard to get consistent rev-matching on the Corvettes, with their pedals that not only changed position under different braking force, but also sunk lower as they grew hotter throughout each track session.

      • 0 avatar

        rpn453, I’m under the impression most of the failures happened at low speed and while turning. That was the case for mine. The biggest danger was failure while turning in traffic such as while making a right or left turn at an intersection.

        So far as I know none of them actually locked up. I’m not sure that’s even possible.

        • 0 avatar

          Good to hear that the problem hasn’t been quite that serious.

          The electro-hydraulic steering in my ’04 Mazda3 occasionally cuts out momentarily and lights up the dash when I’m starting from rest while turning. Just a handful of times a year. This happens because I like to keep the rpms very low when engaging the clutch in order to minimize clutch wear, so I’m often on the verge of stalling. I could see how someone might be caught out in that situation, but my instinct has always been to immediately apply excessive force to any situation that isn’t working the way I expect – sometimes to my detriment – so I’ve never viewed this as much of an issue.

  • avatar

    the initial reports said the vehicle had a tire go flat, which would make much more sense. a novice driver experiences a sudden hard pull and doesn’t know how to react. the road he was on (which I live near) has a fairly small distance between the northbound lanes and the lake. right front tire goes down, car pulls hard to the right, n00b can’t figure out what to do in time to stop the car from going over the bank.

    but on the Internet, every day is “Jump To Conclusions” Day, so it must have been the open recall.

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