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Old 12-11-2002, 10:25   #1 (permalink)
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Crown Vic retrofit not working

Fuel tank bladders leak in police cars
December 11, 2002
BY JOCELYN PARKER
DETROIT FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

A device many hoped would help prevent fuel fires in high-speed, rear collisions might not live up to its promise.

In recent weeks, Ford Motor Co. has been testing protective bladders, reinforced liners for fuel tanks, in its Crown Victoria police cars, and early results don't look good.

Sue Cischke, Ford's top safety executive, said the bladders are leaking during initial durability tests, leaving the company wondering if it's a feasible technology for the Crown Vic.

"Some aren't doing very well," said Cischke, Ford's vice president of environmental and safety engineering. "I don't think that is the solution."

Ford officials said they would not release any specifics on the tests or results until they had a chance to discuss the results with the bladders' manufacturer.

The Crown Victoria Police Interceptor has been the overwhelming car choice of law enforcement officials in the United States. About 85 percent of all police officers and state troopers use the vehicles. Fuel tank fires following high-speed, rear-end collisions have killed 12 officers.

After a 10-month investigation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that the vehicle exceeds federal standards for fuel system safety.

Law enforcement agencies haven't been convinced. And for many departments, an obvious fix seemed to be the bladder, a rupture-proof tank liner commonly used in race cars. But Ford is wary about the technology because passenger-car use differs greatly from that of race cars.

Ford recently received 50 bladders from Fuel Safe of Bend, Ore. Testing will likely continue for the next few months, said Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley.

Ford is examining the bladders, which are designed to keep fuel from leaking if the gas tank is punctured, for durability and how they react with different fuel additives. The bladders will also undergo real-world crash testing.

The analysis comes in the wake of pressure from lawyers, police departments and safety groups to make the cars safer. Ford has already begun retrofitting about 350,000 Interceptors with plastic shields. The shields go around the gas tank, and are designed to ensure suspension and other components do not rupture the tank in severe collisions.

Ford created two panels this summer to examine devices and practices that would make the police cars safer, including fuel-tank bladders. But Ford said it had to delay its analysis because Fuel Safe was backed up with orders and couldn't deliver the devices. Fuel Safe contends the delay had more to do with a dispute over testing protocol.

Bladders have been mandatory on race cars for years, but little is known about how well they work on passenger cars. In everyday use, bladders would have to last longer and withstand a wider range of temperatures.

One test Ford uses will examine whether the bladders can withstand frigid and extremely hot temperatures.

Another critical concern is longevity. Fuel Safe says the bladders last 10 years, but race cars in many cases don't last that long. Given that police departments can keep cars 3 to 5 years, Ford has to make sure the bladders last at least that long.

And then there's supply. Few companies make the devices, which could make it difficult for Ford to retrofit hundreds of thousands of police cars. Cost could also become an issue. The bladders are roughly $1,500 each.

Ty Rupert, operations manager for Fuel Safe, stands behind the bladders. Fuel Safe provides a 5-year warranty, and can hire more people to accommodate higher demand, he said.

Rupert also says he's baffled about the testing. Fuel Safe, he said, supplied the technology for the 1995 and 2000 model year SVTMustang Cobra R, a low-volume high-performance vehicle, so the company has already tested the bladders.

Ford said it would still have to do tests for the Crown Victoria.

Even as Ford conducts its tests, police departments throughout the nation are installing the devices -- in many cases without testing the bladders first.

Sgt. Randy Force of the Phoenix Police said his department has put bladders in about 650 of its 700-vehicle fleet. The City of Phoenix has committed to spend up to $1.5 million on the devices.

Ford, meanwhile, is exploring technologies that could prove to be more cutting-edge.

Fire suppression materials, for instance, might work better because if fuel leaks, they release a powder that would prevent it from igniting, Cischke said.

In any case, the mere fact that Ford is looking at technology beyond the shields puts the Crown Victoria's safety into question again, observers say.

"It shows the need for better protection," said Clarence Ditlow, executivedirector for the Center for Auto Safety. "It's not surprising. Clearly the shields aren't up to the job."
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