Saturday, January 23, 2010

My Ford Escape Hybrid Brake Repair Experience - The Brakes Broke the Bank!

[Editor's Note: An update to this blog post is available Here.]

I have owned my 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid since the autumn of 2004. It was one of the first few Escape Hybrids that were made available in the Washington DC metropolitan area and I was very excited to take delivery. As a long-distance commuter from Northern Virginia into the District of Columbia, owning a hybrid electric vehicle ("HEV") provides certain advantages to those of us who travel on Interstate Highway 95 / 395 each day. You see, the Virginia General Assembly approved a limited exemption for HEVs to use the high occupancy vehicle ("HOV") lanes as a single-driver for the morning and evening commutes. That perk saves me hundreds of commuting hours a year, and the fuel economy savings are an added bonus.

Except for the extremely uncomfortable seats, I have really enjoyed owning this vehicle. The Escape Hybrid has been virtually trouble free after more than 100,000 miles. Seriously. Other than regular oil changes, a set of tires, a battery, and a couple of sets of windshield wipers, there have been no major maintenance costs. That is until now...

A job change during the last year has allowed me to work from home on most days, so the first 100,000 miles were all in the initial four years that I have owned the Escape. It may come as no surprise that not long after breaking through the warranty threshold (3 years or 36,000 miles) I experienced an unusual problem with the brakes. In what seemed to be a very random circumstance, the yellow ABS and the red brake warning lamp lit and the alarm sounded. The brakes reverted to fail safe mode requiring a "pedal to the floor" effort to slow the vehicle to a safe stop at the side of the road. Not exactly comforting. Interestingly, after shutting-off the vehicle and restarting, the brakes returned to normal operation.

A talk with the Ford service manger revealed nothing. The problem did not happen again and the dealer was not aware of a brake problem. I wrote it off to gremlins and continued to drive safely for the next few months. However, once in a great while after that, the problem would reoccur; yellow ABS light, red brake warning light, audible alarm and brake pedal to the floor. The Ford dealer claimed no knowledge of a problem and it could not be reproduced.

After about 80,000 miles and several episodes of brake failure under various, but different conditions, I took it upon myself to do some research. I found Technical Service Bulletin, TSB 05-8-5 (August 5, 2005) (NHTSA ID #10017553) that discussed the problem. That upset me since the Ford service manager was apparently oblivious to a problem that was identified just a few months after I had purchased the Escape. A summary of TSB 05-8-5 states:


ISSUE: Some 2005 Escape Hybrid vehicles built prior to 2/11/2005, may exhibit the yellow ABS and the red brake warning lamps illuminating after the engine is started, and an increase in brake pedal effort. Diagnostic trouble code (DTC) C1526 (Brake Pedal Travel Sensor) will be present in the ABS module, C1524 (Brake Pedal Travel Sensor Calibration Incomplete) may also be present.

ACTION: Install a revised master cylinder. Refer to Workshop Manual Section 206-06.

PART NUMBER PART NAME: 5M6Z-2140-B Master Cylinder

I kept this information in-hand and when I took the Escape to my own mechanic for its 100,000 mile maintenance service, we discussed the problem. Here's where the fun started...

My mechanic and I decided to follow the TSB advice and replace the master cylinder with the revised part. It seems that this is no ordinary master cylinder. The Escape Hybrids use an electro-hydraulic brake ("EHB") system. Because of the regenerative braking action of the HEV, the EHB system does not have a traditional master cylinder with a mechanical vacuum brake booster. The special master cylinder comes with a special price tag: $1,292.31 from Ford and a couple of hundred dollars to my mechanic to install.

With great hope that my brake problem was resolved, I drove the Escape home only to have the problem occur again several hours later. I immediately took the vehicle back to my mechanic and after reviewing the trouble codes, we discovered that installing the new master cylinder had now revealed what the real problem apparently was; the brake system's hydraulic control unit ("HCU").

If you own an Escape Hybrid, you have probably heard the HCU in action. Whenever you unlock or open the door, or switch-on the ignition key, the HCU module tests the brakes by pressurizing the hydraulic system. Four minutes after the key is switched off, the HCU discharges the pressurized fluid back into the master cylinder reservoir. Listen for the hum of the hydraulic pump if you have never noticed before.

With the HEV's regenerative braking system, the HCU controls braking by using the electric motor as a generator to recharge the batteries; the traditional friction brakes actually provide very little of the stopping. Once stopped, the HCU allows the traditional brakes to simply keep the vehicle from rolling. As you might suspect, the HCU is an integral component of the electro-hydraulic brake system and works in conjunction with the master cylinder to provide the regenerative braking and antilock braking system ("ABS") action.

The HCU is an important component of the braking system, so it carries a premium price tag. My cost from Ford? $4,587.17. Ouch! To make matters worse, bleeding the brake system of air after replacing the HCU requires special training and equipment. That's another $494.59 from Ford on top of a few hundred dollars to my mechanic for his time to install the new HCU.

There is no obvious way that I could have damaged the HCU with my very normal driving habits (i.e. no history of towing, long downhill braking, hard braking or urgent stops). The vehicle has never been involved in an accident that may have affected the device, and the HCU is not a component that should be susceptible to wear to the point of early failure. I believe that the Escape Hybrid's regenerative braking system, master cylinder and HCU are defective by design (hence the TSB) and the fault lies with Ford Motor Company. I consider this brake failure very serious and remain surprised that it is a problem that Ford had never bothered to notify me about. They certainly had no problem sending me loads of marketing material to buy a new car.

My attempts to get Ford's attention on this matter have fallen on uncaring eyes and ears. To summarize my correspondance from Ford... Since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA") is not concerned (i.e. nobody has gotten killed by these defective brakes) there is no need for a recall. Therefore, Ford has no responsibility to pay for or deal with my problem. Well, thank you very much! I do not understand how Ford can claim no responsibility for this very serious and significantly dangerous issue with the vehicle's brakes.

Unfortunately, this blog post may not offer much help to the reader other than to warn you of the problem that you may be facing with your Ford Escape or Mercury Mariner Hybrid, and to possibly prepare you for the extreme sticker shock of the repair bill. Maybe YOU will have more luck getting Ford to pay your repair cost. In my case, the cost to repair the brakes was unfortunately necessary. I need the vehicle for transportation to work, it was not safe to drive without the repair, it had no value being broken, and I did not have the conscience to sell the vehicle with this very dangerous problem.

This experience has certainly soured my opinion of the Ford Motor Company. Although I have enjoyed owning several different Ford vehicles, their failure to proactively address this safety issue is rather appalling. I will not buy another Ford product after they have abandoned me with this ~$7,000 bill to repair a problem that is solely related to their poor design.

[Editor's Note: For a very good technical explanation of how the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner Hybrid regenerative braking systems work, please visit Brake & Front End's article on Ford Hybrid Braking by Glen Beanard.]

[Editor's Note: If you have had a similar issue with your Ford Escape or Mercury Mariner Hybrid, be certain to file a complaint with the NHTSA at]

[Postscript (February 8, 2010): I received a nice phone call from a young woman with Ford Customer Relationships. It seems as though they had read this blog and wanted to speak with me. I'm really not certain why, because in the end, they really offered me nothing more than an apology.

It seems that it's Ford's expectation that the local dealer's service manager should have told me about the TSB when I had the vehicle in their shop for other work (He didn't.). It was also explained to me that I should have received a notice in the mail about the TSB (Not sure about you, but I have never received a notice about a TSB from any vehicle manufacturer. Marketing material, yes. Recalls, yes. TSBs, no; and certainly not from Ford for this particular brake problem.).

The Ford representative also suggested that had I come to them earlier (i.e. When the vehicle had fewer miles and before I had the dangerous condition repaired myself), they may have offered me some type of financial assistance to complete the repair. However, since I didn't, I am out the total repair costs myself. Frankly, I find this statement very difficult to believe. And why couldn't they offset some of the cost now? I have all of the receipts to prove that the repair has been completed using the recommended parts purchased directly from Ford.

The young woman from Ford Customer Relationships was very pleasant and I know that she was simply doing her job. I am grateful that she phoned me, but nothing has changed. Ford still has a very dangerous situation with this brake system failure. A failure that is by all indications a design flaw. A failure that the NHTSA has yet to take any meaningful action on. A failure that Ford has really not taken any responsibility to make right with their customers. In the end, I am still out ~$7,000 to address Ford's design problem, just to make my Escape Hybrid safe to drive.

As I explained to the young woman; I have owned Ford vehicles for many years, starting with a 1975 Thunderbird. They have all been fine, serviceable vehicles. Based on my experience with this Ford Escape Hybrid, it will be my last Ford vehicle.

If you have a Ford Escape or Mercury Mariner Hybrid, please should visit your dealer or local mechanic to see if this TSB applies to you; before you experience the fear of having your brakes resort to fail safe mode in a busy traffic situation.]

[Editor's Note: Although the problem may be unrelated, it's good to see Toyota make the right move regarding the similarly dangerous brake problem with its Prius Hybrid vehicle. From CNN: Toyota to Recall Prius Hybrid.]

[Editor's Note: I received an anonymous comment suggesting that I am crazy for expecting Ford to make good on an out-of-warranty repair. To that comment, I reply that I am certainly not crazy. This brake failure is not due to a wear-and-tear drive train component. We're not talking about a wheel bearing or exhaust pipe. This is about the critical failure of the regenerative brake system; a failure acknowledged by Ford mere months after the vehicle was manufactured (Reference TSB 05-8-5). A component failure that is not due to driver-induced damage or wear, but a design flaw. If my use of the vehicle were the cause of the braking system failure, I would accept the responsibility to pay for the repair. However, in this case, the manufacturer is clearly liable and should be responsible for making certain that the vehicle is safe to operate.

This same anonymous soul followed-up with another comment accusing me of posting this blog as a cheap attempt to coerce Ford to pay for my repair. That is not the reason that I published this information. I am much more concerned about the safety of the other Ford Escape / Mercury Mariner Hybrid owners who may not be aware of the dangerous hazard that may exist with their vehicle. I hope that this blog post will encourage them to have their vehicle checked before they experience the brake failure that has affected me and the many others I have heard from.]