NHTSA Says Ford Not to Blame for Police SUV Exhaust Leaks

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

In 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) launched an investigation into 2011-2017 model year Ford Explorers after thousands of instances of police departments reporting an intrusion of exhaust gasses into the cabin. In some cases, the issue was so bad that officers alleged that they had been incapacitated while behind the wheel. However, the agency has finally wrapped up its probe, deciding that the manufacturer wasn’t at fault.

So then, what exactly did happen?

With over 6,000 complaints of exhaust odors leaking into the vehicles – including a sizable number of extreme cases involving the Police Interceptor variant of the Ford Explorer – it seems unlikely that the problem was imagined. Some of the complaints were even accompanied by crashes, with the affected drivers stating that they were overwhelmed by exhaust fumes and lost consciousness.

But the NHTSA closed its investigation on Monday, opting against any recalls. The investigation took over six years and encompassed 1.5 million vehicles, with the agency ultimately deciding that elevated levels of carbon monoxide probably weren’t the fault of the original manufacturer. Instead, the NHTSA suggested that the problem likely stemmed from modifications made to the vehicles – which is also what Ford said when the fingers first started being pointed.

According to Reuters, the agency explained: “that the 2011-2017 Ford Explorer vehicles when accurately measured produce occupant compartment (carbon monoxide) levels which fall below current accepted health standards.”

However, groups upfitting the Police Interceptor Utility variants are presumed to have screwed up in some instances – likely allowing exhaust gasses to leak into the vehicle. Government fleets often undergo heavy modifications, especially vehicles designated for police use. While Ford does a lot of this in-house, departments often add their preferred light bars, cages, computers, and power systems necessary to run all the things normal Explorers don’t have afterward. The NHTSA believes shoddy workmanship left some fleet vehicles with holes that allowed exhaust fumes into the cabin.

"Sealing issues caused by upfitting were responsible for the highest measured carbon monoxide levels in tested vehicles," explained the agency.

Additionally, the NHTSA stated Explorers that had received damage (especially standard models that weren’t designated for police use) as having the highest carbon monoxide levels witnessed during testing. 

Considering the above, regulators opted against forcing a recall. However, Ford has already been fixing these vehicles via a Field Service Action. In 2017, Blue Oval agreed to cover the costs of specific repairs in Police Interceptor SUVs that it previously alleged were tied to aftermarket installations of police equipment. This led to a lot of speculation that Ford was attempting to cover its rear end by shifting the blame while also conducting repairs. But, with the NHTSA, backing up its original claims, the automaker appears to have been vindicated.

On Monday, Ford said it was pleased with the results and that its own internal "investigation and extensive testing determined the same results, which we have always maintained."

[Image: Glenn Highcove/Shutterstock]

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Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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10 of 45 comments
  • James W Hensley James W Hensley on Jan 23, 2023

    Never happened with the Crown Vic - BRING BACK THE PANTHERS!

    • See 1 previous
    • Lou_BC Lou_BC on Jan 24, 2023

      Yup. It was really bad with taxi fleets going with propane conversions.

  • Wjtinfwb Wjtinfwb on Jan 23, 2023

    There were more than 1.17 MILLION Explorers sold in the 2013-2017 time frame, 6000 is about one-half of 1 percent of the vehicles sold. Most of these Explorers were the civilian version driven by Mom, Dad, Grandma etc., all of whom make zero modifications more extensive than a fuzzy pink steering wheel cover. If there was a systemic engineering or quality issue with the 1.17 MILLION Explorers, it would be more prevalent amongst the consumer versions which are by far the majority of the vehicles. I've seen the hack jobs some upfitters execute and have even been on the receiving end of that shoddy work by alarm and stereo shops. This guys bid for this business, hire the cheapest labor possible and getting finished cars out the door as quickly as possible is the key to making money on these deals. Ford is the company with the reputation on the line and given their leadership in Police vehicles, fixing someone else's issue on the cars that only carry their badge makes sense. No one knows who the upfitter is, but they sure as hell know who Ford is. Sounds like Ford doing the right thing to protect their customers and reputation, even if they're not at fault.

    • See 5 previous
    • Lou_BC Lou_BC on Jan 25, 2023

      @Art - he's a bit sheepish about telling you the truth ;)

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