According to published reports, Ford (F) is finally bowing to pressure from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and executing a full recall of its 2004-06 F-150 pickups. Given the roasting that Toyota (TM) received during its Great Recall of 2010, it's hard to grasp why Ford has been so stubborn. There's simply no point in playing chicken with public safety or the federal government right now.
Ford fought the NHTSA recall -- which demanded that the carmakers fix 1.3 million pickups due to an electronic glitch that could make airbags deploy -- for months before the agency finally threatened to force Ford to explain itself. As David Shepardson wrote in the Detroit News:
Ford -- which had vigorously opposed the expansion and said it wasn't necessary -- said in its letter to NHTSA it will expand the recall "to reassure customers of Ford's commitment to safety and to eliminate any possible customer confusion"...NHTSA's letter had warned that if Ford didn't agree to a recall, the agency could convene a formal public hearing to compel a recall -- a rarely used step that hasn't happened in decades.Is Ford pushing its luck?
No carmaker has been showered with as much goodwill as Ford since the onset of the financial crisis and the Detroit Meltdown in 2009. The company didn't need a bailout and has emerged from the worst business environment for the auto industry in 80 years with a powerful head of steam: it's seen its market share steadily increase, is now the officially number two in North American sales (beating out Toyota and Honda), and outsold General Motors (GM) in March.
In this context, bucking NHTSA over something as integral to the safe, modern automobile as the airbag seems incredibly foolish, if not borderline hubristic. It makes matters worse that Ford has allowed this to happen with America's best-selling vehicle -- and the company's reliable cash cow -- the F-150. But that could be the source of Ford's screwy rationale.
Protect the F-150 no matter what
Ford made headlines earlier this year for putting a smackdown on, of all carmakers, Ferrari over infringing on the F-150's mere name (Ferrari backed off). That was understandable because nobody messes with the F-150, which has been the U.S. sales champ for decades.
The idea that almost a million and half F-150s from a previous iteration of the model might pop their airbags without proper justification is the sort of thing that would put a serious chink in Ford's post-bailout armor, not to mention make customers think twice about buying the new, redesigned F-150. But Ford's paranoia is foolish.
Listen to the public
Recalls are a routine part of the auto industry -- they happen all the time, for both major and minor problems. But the Great Toyota Recall provided carmakers with a blast of cold water on their comfy, business-as-usual attitude. Toyota also resisted a major recall because it didn't want to see some of its best-selling sedans stigmatized. But once the story broke and broke big time, Toyota rapidly lost control as trial by Twitter and Facebook took over.
The lesson is that while it may be politically expedient to duke it out with NHTSA, on the assumption that a recall can always be stalled and may finally be downgraded, the strategy collapses as soon as the public finds out -- and it will. For the next few months, all anyone will think about when they think "F-150" is "dangerous airbags."
It's not too late for Ford to reverse this impression. But it needs to engage in some serious public outreach to alleviate more damage and prevent this NHTSA dustup from derailing its admirable recent success.