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Do Ford Roofs Make The Grade?

Apr 12, 2005 | www.cbsnews.com

The federal government is getting ready to tighten safety standards for the roofs on motor vehicles. But now there are questions about whether some of the most popular SUVs on the road today even meet the current standards, reports CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

Time and time again, Ford has faced claims that the Explorer's roof doesn't hold up in a rollover. CBS News has learned of more than 70 lawsuits Ford has settled or lost in recent years.

One of them was Claire Duncan's. She was buckled up when her Explorer flipped and the roof caved in. A jury found the roof defective and said Ford should pay $10 million.

"I couldn't care less about the money," Scott Duncan, the victim's widower, said. "I just wanted to see something done to make a better vehicle."

Ford insists the Explorer roofs meet or beat federal standards. But internal documents produced in some lawsuits reveal chinks in Ford's armor of confidence. And those documents obtained by CBS News question the methods Ford used to prove the roofs really meet the grade.

The original Explorer passed federal roof strength tests but not by the margin Ford's own safety policy called for.

Ford had to issue an internal "deviation" or exception to sell a vehicle falling short of company standards.

As Ford prepared to roll out its 2000 model, the roof continued to be a worry.

"We have a less than desirable safety margin on the Explorer with the current roof crush test procedure" writes a Ford safety officer in an internal e-mail from Oct. 12, 1999. "Without a signoff, we cannot put cert(ification) labels on the vehicles" meaning they cannot be sold.

Under questioning from a victim's attorney, this Ford Engineer admitted there was concern about roof strength.

"I had heard that the safety margin of Explorer warranted in somebody's mind running a physical test," Ford design engineer Tim Chen said in an April 2003 deposition.

"Physical" tests, similar to this one, would help prove how much punishment the Explorer's roof could really take.

But Ford settled for running computer models instead. Computer models that were outdated according to some Ford insiders.

"We can run the (computer) analysis but it would be relatively meaningless," said one supervisor in Ford Crash Safety in an Oct. 14, 1999, Ford Internal e-mail.

"I really doubt the value" says another.

Yet those computer models are what Ford used to show that roofs on 2000, '01 and Explorers meet federal standards. Roofs like Claire Duncan's.

When CBS News asked Ford about all of this, they said: "Engineers frequently debate different methods of testing and there's nothing unusual about different opinions about how to do things."

Higher-ups determined the computer models were adequate. Ford also told Attkisson they eventually did do physical tests of the roof, and confirmed that it holds up.

We asked Ford to show us the test results, but they wouldn't, saying the tests are complex and the results are proprietary.


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