NHTSA Says You Must Have Been Imagining That Exhaust Smell in Your Ford Explorer

The safety agency has been investigating reports of exhaust leaks in 2011 through 2017 Ford Explorers, and concludes that there's no problem at all.

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Promotional image of a white 2017 Ford Explorer on a beach, viewed from the front.
Image: Ford

It took the government six years to determine that the Ford Explorer doesn’t have an exhaust problem, Ford’s EV tie-up with Volkswagen will result in hundreds of job cuts in Europe, and General Motors and LG don’t seem to be getting along. All that and more in The Morning Shift for Monday, January 23, 2023.

1st Gear: Consider the Issue... Explored

Way back in 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced a probe into model years 2011 through 2017 of the Ford Explorer — totaling about 1.5 million vehicles — after the department received some 6,500 complaints of exhaust odors leaking into the cabin. That investigation also covered the Explorer-based Police Interceptors used by law enforcement. Six years on, the safety agency has decided to close the book on the matter on Monday, citing no evidence of a defect. Courtesy Reuters:

NHTSA said its investigation found “that the 2011-2017 Ford Explorer vehicles when accurately measured produce occupant compartment (carbon monoxide) levels which fall below current accepted health standards.”

The investigation did find issues with dealers, government fleets and others modifying the Police Interceptor vehicles. So-called “upfitting” — adding sirens, lights, cages, auxiliary power — is typically performed by governmental fleet operations, independent repair facilities, or local dealers.

“Sealing issues caused by upfitting were responsible for the highest measured carbon monoxide levels in tested vehicles,” NHTSA said while adding the highest levels in consumer vehicles were usually traced to sealing issues caused by rear crash damage.

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The issues around upfitting are key, because holes were drilled into the SUV’s underbody as part of the conversion process, and Ford decided to foot the bill for those repairs. The automaker also flashed revised heating and cooling software onto consumer and fleet vehicles as part of a recall campaign in 2017 to lessen the possibility of exhaust leakage. Despite these measures, the NHTSA hasn’t been able to find evidence that the SUVs ever posed a safety risk to begin with.

When the investigation began, three crashes were thought to be potentially linked to carbon monoxide poisoning within the cabin. The Austin, Texas police department pulled all 40 of its Interceptors from duty a short while later, in 2017. Congratulations Ford — you finally dodged one.

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2nd Gear: Meanwhile, in Europe

Ford is changing some things, particularly at its Cologne, Germany plant. That facility used to be the home of the Fiesta, but with the Blue Oval shedding its most iconic European nameplates, the plant will now produce two battery-electric models developed with Volkswagen’s MEB architecture. We already knew this; what we didn’t know was that at least 1,000 employees would lose their jobs in the process. From Automotive News:

The automaker plans to reduce the workforce at its European headquarters and factory in Cologne, Germany, by a four-digit number, sources told Automotive News Europe sister publication Automobilwoche.

The job losses will be across the board in assembly, engine and transmission manufacturing, and also in development, administration and sales, the sources said.

The company is creating a new business structure for its European operations, the sources said.

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As the article explains, because Ford is leaning on Volkswagen tech for these cars, it supposedly needs fewer engineers of its own at the site. It might seem counterintuitive to you and I, the prospect of scaling back personnel while launching perhaps the most important products in a company’s recent history. But hey, that’s what it means to run a major corporation in 2023.

3rd Gear: IPO Everything

That seems to be Volkswagen’s modus operandi these days, as the German automaker is considering listing its energy and charging division on global markets the same way it spun off Porsche. Before it does, though, it’ll prepare a mock listing as a training exercise, per Reuters, in an initiative dubbed “virtual equity stories.” I wish I were kidding about that last part.

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As the article explains, the impetus for this is the inevitable crossover between EVs and the electrical grid, and all of the money that will make certain people. Volkswagen wants in:

[Elke] Temme, a former RWE executive who has led the carmaker’s energy business, said electric cars could help stabilise the large price swings in the electricity market by acting as temporary storage for the overcapacity of green electricity on the grid - known as bi-directional charging.

But regulators needed to first create a framework to make this economically viable. “It won’t take five more years,” Temme predicted, adding that Volkswagen’s electric vehicles on the MEB platform were equipped for the feature.

Temme, in the job since January 2021, has been tasked with bundling the carmaker’s various power activities such as procuring energy, enabling customers to charge their cars at home and on the road and selling the electricity required.

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After all this is said and done, you have to wonder if there will be a single division of Volkswagen that doesn’t have its own code on the stock ticker.

4th Gear: Three Plants Is Apparently Enough

General Motors and LG Energy Solution are opening three plants, under the Ultium Cells joint venture, to build EV batteries together. They were eyeing a fourth, but plans have evidently fallen through, according to reports that emerged late last Friday. What’s particularly amusing about this news, though, is the reason talks between the two companies have reportedly broken down.

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If you guessed that the $1 billion Bolt recall bill GM shoved off onto LG might have something to do with it, you’re a clever one. Via Bloomberg:

GM still intends to build another battery plant in the US to support its electric-vehicle ambitions, the company said in a statement that didn’t specify a partner. The Detroit automaker has held discussions in recent months with other battery suppliers, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private.

The split between South Korea’s LG and GM comes after after a tense stretch in the partnership. GM has wanted to ramp up EV volume faster than LG has, and secure plans for a fourth plant soon, one of the people said. The battery maker didn’t commit to GM’s timeline so the company is looking at other partners.

There were a couple other incidents that tested the relationship, the people said. The automaker had to recall all of the 143,000 Chevrolet Bolt EVs it had built due to battery fires, and its partner picked up most of the cost. They also had differing views on how to manage a union organizing drive at the Lordstown, Ohio, Ultium Cells LLC plant. The two companies will continue to operate the joint venture plant there, plus two planned facilities in Tennessee and Michigan.

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All I’m taking away from this is that it sounds like GM may be prodding LG to rush things, not long after forcing LG to pay hundreds of millions of dollars as a penalty for a defect that, in all likelihood, happened because it rushed things.

5th Gear: The Rolls-Royce Spectre Might Just Be a Hit

Rolls-Royce will begin building its first EV later this year, called the Spectre. However many the company expected to make, it might just have to pump out more due to demand, according to its CEO. From Automotive News:

“The order intake for the Spectre is far better at this moment than we would have expected,” Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös said on a call with journalists earlier this month. “We have a couple of months to go [before production starts], but if that trend continues then I’m pretty sure we need to adjust our plans.”

[...]

Müller-Ötvös said the Spectre would achieve the “same levels” of profitability as the rest of the brand’s portfolio. And while BMW does not reveal Rolls-Royce’s financial results, Müller-Ötvös said his bosses in Munich were happy with the margins his company generates.

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The profit margin is pretty comfortable on a $400,000 i7 with some hand stitching? You don’t say.

Reverse: While We’re at it, Who Made Steve Guttenberg a Star? 

On this day in 2006, 17 years ago, somebody asked an important question. Via 365 Days of Motoring:

Who Killed the Electric Car?, a documentary about the aborted attempt by the auto industry to create an electric vehicle, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie posited that there was a conspiracy between oil companies, automakers and the government to kill the electric car.

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Neutral: It’s Finally Snowing

As I type this, somewhere in Pennsylvania. Big flakes. Remember when this used to happen in November? I look forward to March’s impending snowpocalypse.