Ford Delayed Important Safety Device for Nearly 10 Years

Strategic Safety News, Volume 4, Issue 3, November/December 2001

Adjustable foot pedal controls allow short-statured drivers to increase the distance between themselves and the air bag module, thereby lessening chances of injury from an air bag deployment. Strategic Safety News reported the use of these designs, their first application in 1970s era GM vehicles and their more current application in 1999 model year Ford vehicles (SSN Vol.1, Issue 4, and Vol. 2, Issue 3). Further investigation reveals that these mechanical devices were offered to Ford and other vehicle manufacturers more than 10 years ago; yet this relatively low-tech solution to reducing injuries to short-statured drivers was not implemented until recently. Now litigation in a case against Ford has uncovered new information about the use and application of adjustable pedals and why they were not provided in Ford air bag-equipped vehicles many years earlier during what is now known as the "air bag crisis."

Studies of real world air bag collision incidents show that drivers whose seats are in the forwardmost position are at highest risk of being severely injured by the air bag. NHTSA Special Crash Investigation files show at least 20 restrained driver fatalities caused by air bags. The agency recommends drivers maintain at least 10 inches between their chest and the air bag module to reduce the risk of serious injury from a deployment. However, it is estimated that approximately 5 percent of female drivers in the U.S. sit less than 10 inches from the air bag module. But these findings vary with car size, and according to one study approximately 40 percent of short women in large and midsize cars sat closer than 10 inches to the steering wheel compared with 27 percent in small cars. In a related study of 13 drivers who were 4' 8" inches to5' 2", three of the 13 positioned themselves less than 10 inches from the air bag module.

Ergonomic research has shown that adjustable pedals increase the distance between a driver's chest and the air bag module by an average of three inches, which can significantly reduce the chances of serious injury from an air bag deployment. Adjustable pedals can also improve foot kinematics and reduce foot/ankle injuries.

In 1994 Ford safety chief Robert Munson told Automotive News that if he could improve only a couple of things (besides the driver) it would be seat belts and foot pedals (SSN, Vol. 2, Issue 2). Munson said short drivers sit too close to the air bag because they have to move the seat forward to reach the pedals--"We need to tell people not to sit right on top of the air bag. People don'trealize it's what you could call an `aggressive' device. . . . You can suffer a very serious injury, even a fatality, if you're sitting too close to an airbag when it goes off." His solution-adjustable pedals to allow smaller drivers to maintain a greater distance between themselves and the air bag module. At the time, Ford's ergonomics division predicted that 35 percent of the population would benefit from improved comfort and safety through the use of adjustable pedals by moving shorter drivers away from the steering wheel while making air bags more effective and less likely to cause injury. Munson's statements in 1994 appeared to be alluding to Ford's upcoming application of adjustable pedals; however, it took Ford another five years to include these safety devices on production models despite having applications production ready and tested.

Adjustable pedal designs date back to the 1950s and were first utilized in production vehicles by GM in the 1970s. GM marketed its adjustable pedal system as a comfort and convenience option that provided as much as four-inches of adjustment range. While Ford did not offer a production version, it fitted an early 1970s experimental safety vehicle with an adjustable pedal design and fixed driver seat that accommodated 95th percentile male through 5th percentile female drivers.The pedals were designed with eight inches of adjustment and operated electrically.

Why didn't Ford and other manufacturers implement adjustable pedals to reduce the hazards of air bags to small drivers when it was apparent that adjustable pedals offered a solution to driver proximity to the air bag? Louisville, Kentucky attorney Ron Hillerich recently asked that question of Thomas Robson, former president of the supplier company that sells adjustable pedals to Ford and other vehicle manufacturers. Hillerich represents the family of a small-statured woman who, despite being belted, was fatally injured by the deployment of the air bag in her 1997 Mercury Sable. Hillerich deposed Robson and learned Ford was not only aware of the safety benefits of adjustable pedals, but the company planned their introduction as early as 1990-a full nine years before they were actually introduced. However, according to Robson, it was Ford's purchasing department that brought the introduction of these safety devices to a grinding halt because the supplier didn't fit within the company's new consolidated purchasing scheme. The supplier, previously DeCouper Industries and currently known as Teleflex, was deemed too small for Ford purchasing, which was trying to pare down the number of suppliers. Despite attempts to work an arrangement with Ford that included having the systems manufactured by a large Ford supplier or through Ford's own in-house parts manufacturing, DeCouper was stonewalled.

The saga began in January 1986 when at Ford's request several suppliers, including DeCouper, were asked to participate in a design study for adjustable pedals for 1990 model year vehicles. In June 1986, Ford asked suppliers to stop work on the project due to concerns about feasibility because of the new passive restraint requirements. Although the initial project was cut by Ford,in 1989 Ford Advanced Vehicle Engineering Technology had DeCouper install an adjustable pedal system on a Thunderbird. Meanwhile DeCouper continued development of adjustable pedal designs and in 1990 actively promoted the safety advantages of its patented system to Ford. DeCouper fitted a 1990 Lincoln Continental and a 1988 Taurus wagon, which were used to demonstrate the system to Ford. The company also sent information to key Ford planners, designers, product engineers, the safety office, and purchasing, and held seminars for Ford decision-makers. Ford responded that with "limited resources" they were unable to pursue evenhigh priority ergonomic features. This was the beginning of a long process in which DeCouper persistently presented Ford engineers, executives, and safety people with information on their design; prototypes were designed and tested; and Ford continued to encourage the supplier tomove forward with its adjustable pedal system.

By 1991 DeCouper, already a Ford Q1 supplier, fitted an adjustable pedal system in Ford's Contour concept car and completed 200,000 miles of testing in GM and Ford vehicles over a 6-month period. In July of that year DeCouper also provided Ford with time and cost estimates for production of adjustable pedals. The company estimated 18 months was needed to provide a volume of 200,000 units or greater at a cost of $27 to $30, and prototype installations could be completed in 8 to 12 weeks-this meant production could still be met for 1993 and 1994 model year Ford vehicles. By October DeCouper offered Ford exclusivity for their adjustable pedal design for the 1995 and 1996 model years. The first Ford vehicles scheduled to receive the system were the Continental and Taurus/Sable platforms, but Ford again deferred the programuntil the 1996/1997 model years. During the early 1990s, reports of air bag injuries to drivers began to find their way into the news, and there was particular concern for drivers who needed to sit close to the air bag module.

An April 1992 internal Ford memo shows that approval for pre-program funding of adjustable pedals for 1996 and 1997 models was granted. The memo went on to note that it was in Ford's best interest that purchasing work with DeCouper to ensure the company remained a viable, profitable supplier. However, DeCouper was not part of Ford purchasing department's long-term sourcing strategy, which DeCouper president Tom Robson learned would create a roadblock. Robson testified that "Ford purchasing had a real hard time with the fact that all the engineers liked the product and were looking at opportunities to put it in their vehicle. Ford Purchasing didn't have us in their long term plan. . . . Ford purchasing had advised us they didn't believe that we could be the supplier of adjustable pedals, even though engineering wanted this product and even though the product was great. . . . We were not in the long term plan for Ford Purchasing" As a result, the head of Ford's new products group suggested that DeCouper offer incentives to the purchasing department in order to get them to authorize a deal to get adjustable pedals in Ford vehicles. Back and forth communications ensued between DeCouper and Ford purchasing in which DeCouper was willing to meet Ford demands, including a joint venture partnership with other suppliers who were part of Purchasing's plans and an offer of exclusivity for Ford. None of these arrangements were able to move Ford Purchasing off of their long-termplans of supplier consolidation. Robson described the situation as "Ford Purchasing simply refused to change its direction and allow any other division or any group within Ford to tell themwhat they were going to do. . . . We agreed to sit down with Ford and have them name a supplier who they would like us to work with. And we would work with them on an exclusive arrangement of some sort, that we were wide open for opportunities to continue the program bydealing with Ford Purchasing in any way they wanted to deal with us. What we got in return was that they wanted us to sell the company or give someone else the rights to our patents withoutany remuneration. . . . We developed it. We designed it. We had proven that we were a capable supplier but yet they wanted us to give it away." Robson went on to state that "we're making adjustable pedals today in spite of Ford telling us back in 1992 that we weren't capable of doing it."

DeCouper continued supplying prototypes for Ford in the early 1990s for Taurus/Sable, Continental, Mustang, Explorer, and Bronco, and Ford authorized preprogram funding to proceed with the implementation of adjustable pedals on select luxury models. Ford noted that DeCouper's adjustable pedals "may play an important role in the design of future interiors toallow optimum occupant positioning for passive restraint effectiveness with disproportionate drivers." By April 1993, Ford conditionally approved adjustable pedals for the 1997 Expedition and 1998 Continental models, but by June Ford stopped the progress again claiming "budgeting problems." Through the mid-1990s DeCouper grew by acquisition and continued to supply standard brake and accelerator pedal assemblies to Ford and other manufacturers as well as landing a contract with Chrysler to provide adjustable pedals for the Dodge Viper. Later Ford finally approved and followed through with an adjustable pedal program for the Expedition/Navigator for the 1999 model year, which was the same design the company waspromoting in the early 1990s.

Now that adjustable pedals have made their way into a number of Ford vehicles, Ford marketing fails to mention their safety benefits and promotes the feature as a comfort and convenience device. Adjustable pedals in Ford vehicles have been so well received by consumers that Ford Brand Manager J.C. Collins stated the company is "now going to put it [adjustable pedals] into as many vehicles as we can." Arthur Redmond, Executive Director of Ford Global Consumer Insights has said that "adjustable pedals were originally targeted at women but ended upproviding a competitive advantage in the general market." Ford's competitive advantage is quickly eroding as Chrysler, Toyota, and others have started to use adjustable pedal designs.