Ford says it wants to offer peace of mind to owners of more than 1.35 million Explorer SUVs concerned about exhaust fumes, so the Dearborn automaker will inspect and repair the vehicles, if necessary, for free.
Elizabeth Weigandt, Ford's safety communications manager, said the company is taking the action voluntarily, although it has notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA has an open investigation into the complaints involving 2011-17 Explorers.
Ford maintains the vehicles are safe, but said it's making the repairs available in response to customer concerns.
"We know that some of our customers do have some exhaust and carbon monoxide concerns. There is a NHTSA investigation on the matter so we know there's some awareness," Weigandt said, noting that those customers might also have seen media reports of the situation. "These vehicles are safe. We have not found a safety issue here."
Weigandt, who noted that NHTSA did not request the action, said Ford's investigation did not find carbon monoxide levels in excess of what people experience in their everyday lives.
Ford has sold more than 1.35 million Explorers since 2011, when the vehicle was redesigned and the exhaust problems began. The complaints said fumes and carbon monoxide had leaked into the passenger cabins of police and consumer versions of the SUVs.
Ford previously focused repair efforts on police versions of the Explorer, but civilians continue to complain to the agency about exhaust fumes and symptoms such as nausea, headaches and drowsiness. Ford has attributed the police Explorer issues to improperly installed aftermarket parts, such as emergency lights.
Agencies such as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission note the dangers of carbon monoxide exposure.
“Carbon monoxide, also known as CO, is called the invisible killer because it's a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas. More than 150 people in the U.S. die every year from accidental non-fire related CO poisoning associated with consumer products, including generators,” according to the commission’s website.
Ford said it will send letters to civilian owners of 2011 through 2017 Explorers starting this month advising them that they can have their SUVs serviced. Dealers will perform the work between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31.
Mechanics will check for leaks in the rear lift gate gaskets and drain valves. If any leaks are found, they'll be sealed or gaskets will be replaced to prevent fumes from entering, Ford spokesman Mike Levine said. They'll also reprogram the air conditioning to let in more fresh air.
Ford will pay for the work regardless of mileage, age of the vehicles or whether they're under warranty. It also will reimburse owners who previously paid for repair work, Levine said.
The customer service campaign is not a recall, although safety regulators could still push for one. NHTSA began its investigation of Explorers in July 2016.
"NHTSA will take appropriate action as warranted, and any future decisions will be based on the findings of the investigation," the agency said in a statement.
Ford started repairing police versions this summer after departments reported that carbon monoxide from exhaust fumes was making officers sick. The company said at the time there was no reason for owners of non-police Explorers to be concerned.
But over the past six years, more than 1,100 civilians have complained to the government about exhaust fumes seeping into Explorers, causing headaches, burning eyes, nausea, sleepiness and an odor such as burning hair, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. In addition, Ford has received more than 2,000 complaints, warranty claims, reports from dealers and legal claims related to exhaust odors.
Even for such a big seller, 1,100 complaints about a single problem is unusual, especially because exhaust fumes almost never find their way into passenger areas, said Allan Kam, a former attorney with NHTSA who now is a consultant to consumers and manufacturers.
Several police agencies pulled Explorer Police Interceptors off the road because of complaints from officers — some of whom were hospitalized — about fumes and carbon monoxide. Ford has said the gas is leaking from the tailpipe into the police cabins because of non-factory outfitters that drilled holes into police SUVs to install extra equipment such as lights and radios. Ford has offered to pay to seal the holes.
Police in Austin pulled nearly 400 Explorers off patrol in July because of carbon monoxide concerns and reports of officers getting sick. Some of those vehicles have been repaired.
For more information: Ford has set up a hotline at 888-260-5575 to answer questions about the Explorer inspection programs.
Contact Eric D. Lawrence: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence. The Associated Press contributed to this report.