Ford to add anti-rollover system to '05 Explorer
Move comes as SUV lawsuits continue, feds push safety devices to limit crashes
By Eric Mayne, and Jeff Plungis / The Detroit News
ROMEO — Ford Motor Co. said Thursday it will for the first time equip its Ford Explorer and three other sport utility vehicles with standard anti-rollover technology, beginning with 2005 models.
The move could bolster the safety and brand image of the Explorer, the nation’s best-selling SUV and a huge money maker for Ford. The Explorer is the target of a hundreds of lawsuits in recent years stemming from rollover accidents.
Known as Roll Stability Control (RSC), the system reacts automatically as soon as a vehicle begins to tilt — a precursor to rollovers. It rights the vehicle by automatically slowing its engine speed and gently activating its brakes.
In addition to the Explorer, Ford will offer the technology as standard equipment on the Explorer-based Mercury Mountaineer and Lincoln Aviator, as well as the Lincoln Navigator full-size SUV.
Developed by Ford and supplier Continental Teves, the technology will also be available as optional equipment on the 2005 Ford Expedition full-size SUV.
Ford dealers are already taking orders for 2005 models, which go on sale within weeks.
Ford’s decision comes as the federal government is encouraging automakers to install “active safety” systems that help drivers avoid accidents. The Bush administration has asked Congress for $5 million to accelerate research on the benefits of crash-avoidance technologies.
Rollover accidents are especially deadly, even though they represent a small fraction of all vehicle crashes — about 3 percent. But there are more than 10,000 rollover-related deaths each year, representing about one-third of all passenger vehicle deaths.
The Explorer has been a prime target for lawsuits since the Firestone tire controversy erupted in 2000. Firestone tires on Ford Explorers sustained tread separations that were linked to rollovers that claimed 271 lives and injured several hundred others.
Nationwide, dozens of cases involving Explorer rollovers are before the courts. Last month, a jury slapped Ford with a record $386 million verdict in an Explorer case. Prior to that verdict, however, Ford prevailed in 13 consecutive Explorer rollover trials.
While Ford has maintained its flagship SUV was and is among the safest vehicles on the road, the Explorer’s brand image took a beating.
“Anything we can do to strengthen the Explorer brand, we’re going to do,” said Phil Martens, Ford’s group vice president of North America product creation. “We still feel that it is a very strong brand and we think there is tremendous brand equity in it.”
Safety experts applauded Ford’s strategy, although one said it should have been implemented sooner.
“It is excellent news they’re putting this system on,” said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports magazine’s auto test division. “It will help people keep all four wheels on the ground. We urge all manufacturers to make this equipment standard on all their SUVs.”
To date, only Volvo — a Ford-owned brand — features a system that responds to body tilt. The 2003 Volvo XC90 was the world’s first vehicle to offer RSC. The technology became available as an option on 2004 models of the Lincoln Aviator and Navigator.
Other electronic stability control systems behave the same way as RSC, but they are activated solely by traction loss, a precursor to spinouts.
Champion said Ford could also be reacting to market conditions. Toyota Motor Co.p. made electronic stability control standard on all its SUVs in the 2004 model year. Every Mercedes-Benz vehicle features stability control.
Champion noted that a two-wheel-drive version of the Explorer, without RSC technology, recently tipped up on two wheels in a government rollover test. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives it and the four- wheel-drive Explorer a rollover rating of three out of five stars .
The 2004 XC90 earned four stars as did four-wheel-drive versions of the Buick Rainier, Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Dodge Durango, GMC Envoy, Honda Pilot, Isuzi Ascender, Oldsmobile Bravada and Subaru Forester. Some of the four-star vehicles were equipped with stability control, some were not.
Sean Kane, head of Safety Research and Strategies Inc., a Massachusetts-based automotive research firm, said Ford is making a good move, but it’s long overdue.
“When you look at all that’s happened to Ford, it’s about time,” Kane said.
The Explorer — introduced in 1990 — is the best-selling SUV of all time with more than 5 million units on the road. Redesigned in 2003 to feature a wider stance, it is the sales leader through the first six months of this year, ahead of TrailBlazer, says WardsAuto.com.
Last year, with more than 373,000 deliveries, it outsold Trailblazer — again its nearest competitor — by nearly 100,000 units.