Ford debacle: At last a SA regulatory agency does its job

William Saunderson-Meyer says the company's response to the Kuga fire crisis has been pathetic


In 1908 Henry Ford invented the motorcar, accompanied by a laconic assurance to buyers that they could have it in “any colour as long as it is black”. A century later, this macho indifference to the customer clearly still permeates the local subsidiary that bears his name.

Ford SA has found itself at the centre of a public firestorm over its tardiness in reacting to its Kuga SUV spontaneously self-combusting. There have been 40-50 incidents of Kugas bursting into flames in less than a year, with one death and several narrow escapes. The most recent was yesterday, Friday.

Ford’s response to this was pathetic, characterised by obfuscation and misrepresentation. It took the company a year before it asked Kuga owners to take their vehicles for a safety inspection. But even then, after dealerships had checked and pronounced a vehicle safe, some were still going up in flames.

It was only this week that Ford issued a recall for the 4,556 1.6-litre Kuga SUVs built between 2012 and 2014. It ascribes the fires to engine overheating, following a failure in the coolant circulation system.

Ford warned that there would be delays in effecting repairs, since it doesn’t have sufficient replacement parts in stock. Kuga owners, in turn, have complained that in many cases the promised courtesy cars were not available and that some dealerships had refused to book in the cars, because they had not been notified by Ford of the recall.

Obviously, this is not good, at least in the short term, for Ford’s reputation. It is, however, not simply a problem of bad marketing, tin-eared public relations, or cack-handed branding, as has been suggested by the editorial writers and advertising experts. 

What it is, is additional evidence of a corporate malaise, of companies so cloaked in arrogance, so disdainful of the “little people” who buy their products and consume their services, that they really couldn’t give a stuff. And since in SA two or three giants dominate virtually every economic sector – seemingly in cut-throat rivalry but actually colluding to thwart new entrants who threaten to bring real competition – consumer options are limited.

There will, of course, be a dip in Ford sales locally, since presumably not many new buyers want a mobile crematorium that unpredictably immolates its occupants. But no matter how much one would like to believe in the idiom that as you sow, so shall you reap, this is likely to be a only momentary setback for Ford.

After all, there are not many alternatives for would-be buyers. The motor industry, world wide, is riddled with corruption and a willingness to dice with the lives of its clients. 

Volkswagen, and likely other manufacturers, cheated on their emissions control mechanisms in at least 12m vehicles. In the US, six vehicle manufacturers – Audi, BMW, General Motors, Jaguar, Land Rover and Mercedes Benz – recently recalled nearly 2.5 million vehicles to replace airbags that everyone had until that moment sworn blind were not defective.

Locally, when asked why it had taken so long to issue the recall, Ford SA’s CEO, Jeff Nemeth, said the company had been trying to understand what was going on. “What’s really important is we look at a body of data, right? And so we’re constantly trying to understand what’s happened to these vehicles and … so we’ve been investigating. We shipped 15 engines back to the US and Europe in the course of 2016, so our engineers could start understanding what was going on.”

What arrant rubbish. Nemeth is either a cynical liar or simply too dumb to retain as top honcho of anything more challenging than Honest Jeff’s Pre-owned Cars.

Perhaps Nemeth should have had one of his minions Google the problem, if he really was as ignorant as he claims. He would discover that the 1.6l Kuga is the equivalent model of US Ford’s 1.6l Escape, which has been subject to several recalls in recent years, including one in 2012 for the same engine fire problem. 

Nemeth’s belated decision to recall the Kuga – appositely for something no one any longer wants to touch, kuga is a Slovenian word for the plague – was not prompted by altruism nor ethics. He did so because the National Consumer Commission (NCC) issued Ford with an ultimatum: initiate a “voluntary” safety recall or the NCC would order one. 

The NCC should take a bow for intervening firmly. This is a rare victory for the so-called oversight bodies that litter the SA landscape but mostly seem to be too chummy with the entities that they are supposed to control to be of any use. 

It would be great if the agencies that regulate other sectors took courage from the NCC’s actions. Challenging the telecommunications cartels’ decades-long gouging of consumers with exorbitant data and cellular charges would be a fine start.

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