Dual-clutch transmissions have not had the best reputation in Australia.
From the Volkswagen experience to the latest spout of issues with Ford’s PowerShift transmissions, the concept of ditching the conventional torque converter in favour of a ‘next-generation’ transmission has not been the smoothest experience for both customers or manufacturers.
With the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) now taking Ford Australia to the federal court over what the government body claims is “unconscionable and misleading or deceptive conduct…false or misleading representations” to customers over vehicles affected by its dual-clutch transmission troubles – allegations Ford vehemently denies – it’s worth taking a step back and looking at what it all means, and what the blue oval has been doing about it.
This week, Ford Australia invited CarAdvice to Broadmeadows to offer an in-depth and technical analysis as to what are the root causes of the PowerShift transmission issues and what Ford has done to fix affected vehicles and help customers.
As background, the affected Ford vehicles were fitted with a six-speed dry dual-clutch automatic transmission system, of which, to date, Ford Australia has sold over 70,000 in various versions.
As of last month, around half of those vehicles have been back to Ford for a transmission repair. Of that number, around 12,000 have had their clutch replaced with the latest version (5000 of them, Ford claims, as part of a proactive campaign initiated by the company).
The issue that has seen so many vehicles return to Ford is caused by excessive transmission shuddering and the vehicles jerking when accelerating. The ACCC claims this has caused safety concerns for owners, and impacted the use of their vehicle.
Ford, citing a major Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development (DIRD) investigation, denies these issues are in any way safety related. But, they are issues nonetheless.
Speaking to CarAdvice, the head of Ford Australia, Graeme Whickman, was more than willing to admit the company didn’t get on top of this properly in the early stages.
With PowerShift transmissions being used widely in selected Focus and Fiesta models from 2011 (and EcoSport later on), Ford did not anticipate or gear up for the level and scale of issues, which the company claims really began to spike in 2015.
“We started to see more of a surge in customer inbound contacts through dealers or call centres around 2015, more than anything, and we acknowledge that when we first caught it, that we weren’t ready in terms of the number of people calling - and people may have had a poor experience,” Whickman told CarAdvice.
“I apologised for that earlier in the week and I will apologise for that now; we don’t set out to give [a] poor experience to our customers. Then we quickly ramped up and we now have ten times the number of people involved so that when people call us, we have a dedicated part of the call centre so that if anything comes our way, we don’t fall down in that regard.”
Unfortunately for Ford and its customers, the initial diagnosis was not a foolproof fix for some of the affected vehicles, even for those that had their clutch entirely replaced. The initial issue was leaky seals on the gearbox that let to oil contamination of the dry clutch module, which presented to customers as a shudder.
“The team dealt with that, both at production and service level. [We] put those fixes in place and extended the warranty (to seven years) for extra peace of mind. Then you assume that [shuddering issue] abates, but you continue to see shudder and so that demands us to look at what else can cause that.”
While the original issue was fixed, some cars then begun to present with ‘dry-shudder’ and further annoyed a fair few of Ford’s customers that had already had their cars fixed.
As far some of them were concerned - understandably - the same issue persisted or came back within a short period of time.
“Over time we saw that there was some issue with the clutch material, but not in every case and that’s the challenge because… when a vehicle presents at a dealership or somebody is on the phone describing what is going on, if you got issues or symptoms that are very similar, sometimes it’s very hard to diagnose it.”
What Ford found was that there were two additional and unrelated issues with the PowerShift transmission that could cause shudder or jerky behaviour when accelerating - especially in start stop traffic and at low speeds when the vehicle is transitioning from first to second gear.
“One of which was the heat transfer of the clutch material, and that wasn’t presenting consistently either - sometimes in urban situations and sometimes in situations where there was no pattern, so you had to go through a bit of analysis," Whickman said.
"So, we had in production and in service a new clutch material which has been in place since last year."
“And thirdly, and unrelated to the clutch itself, the transmission control module (TCM), the computer chip [was an issue] and over a long time that chip can or may have a solder crack, and with that, the capability to talk in microseconds [is compromised]. That can present itself in a jerky or rough shifting situation.”
For some customers that at this point may have had their Ford vehicles back at a dealership multiple times over an extended period, the consistent transmission issues would have been a huge inconvenience and Whickman admits that his customers most likely don’t care these were separate issues. Customers want a car that works.
“No, the consumer doesn’t understand the root cause, why should they? Why would they need to? What they do understand is that they are being presented with some symptoms that felt or were considered to be similar and, as we fixed one, that symptom may have remained and they might have thought it wasn’t fixed.”
At this point, some customers had already started demanding Ford buy back their vehicles under their rights covered by Australian Consumer Law, which not only trumps manufacturer warranties but also implies that a product must be fit for its intended purpose.
Whickman says that allegations against Ford, that it didn’t refund or replace vehicles for customers that had been adversely affected by repeat issues, is false.
“There have been discussions about refunds and replacements - it was alleged that we don’t have refund or replacement program; we do. We have replaced or refunded nearly 400 vehicles over that period of time in addition to a significant volume being repaired.”
Now that three separate issues with the PowerShift transmission have been addressed, is Ford Australia willing to stand behind its latest fix with the most recent clutch material and diagnosis capabilities?
“Yes. The purpose of diagnosing properly and making the right decision around solutions is to ensure that the solutions are permanent and that they are answering the issue and don’t affect another vehicle part’s performance.”
With the PowerShift transmission warranties now extended to seven years, the first of these vehicles will soon come to run out of warranty all together, but Whickman confirmed the company would look at each vehicle on a case-by-case basis and likely honour any repeat issues further out of that warranty period.
“The warranties follow the vehicle and not the person so you could be the tenth owner and still have the peace of mind. We look at each issue case by case, and even if somebody came to us with a ten-year-old car, we will look at it case by case because we understand that consumer law trumps warranties and we encourage people to come to us.”
But does the latest fix actually remove the problem entirely? To help us better understand, Ford Australia provided two cars for us to drive, one with the issue and one with the latest iteration of the fix applied.
Firstly, we jumped in a 2012 Ford Fiesta with a clutch shuddering issue that the company is using to train not only its call centre staff in understanding what the problem feels like, but also for its own demonstration purposes.
Here, we were joined with Ford’s chief mechanic, Mark Cruse, who explained to us the diagnostic procedure and what a dealer does in order to quickly identify the issue and book the affected vehicle in for a clutch replacement.
A vehicle diagnostic tool is plugged into the vehicle suspected of presenting the issue and the software can measure the difference between the input shaft speed and engine RPM, and if that threshold or slip is more than 250 RPM, the vehicle gets a new clutch under warranty. The diagnosis should take just a matter of minutes.
The [dry] shuddering issue tends to present itself when the vehicle is warm and has been running for around 45 mins to an hour. It’s easier to create the slip issue when the vehicle is undergoing start-stop traffic or accelerating slowly up a hill. Ford can also install a data logger in cases where it’s difficult to diagnose.
As for the third and final issue with the transmission control module, Cruse says that while all these are separate, they all caused transmission issues. This would no doubt have further confused owners that had already had their vehicles fixed.
“TCM had some computer chip issues mounting to a board and over time it had a susceptibility to solder crack, and that solder crack, with heat and temperature and time, would get worse. What we do have today is a calibration specifically to identify a loss of communication with those chips.”
This latest version of Ford calibration would show up as a warning light on the dash if there is a delay of around 100ms between the chip and the rest of the vehicle’s computer systems. The symptoms of these is sudden jerky gear changes or at the extreme, the computer dropping the use of some gears entirely.
As for how this is communicated to Ford dealers, Cruse says Ford has had extensive dealer training to correctly diagnose and fix the issue.
“We have a number of mechanisms. Our field service actions go out with dealer communications, in regards to what the issue is, what the diagnostic process is.
"We also have webinar environment and technical training programs that are one-on-one, and in this particular case, we have had three sessions over a number of years where we have brought in master technicians to explain.”
With all three of these fixes now in effect, Ford Australia’s head of communications, Martin Gunsberg, told CarAdvice that the great majority of vehicle owners that are on the final specification fix for the powershift transmission are happy with their vehicles.
“We’ve fitted the latest clutch to around 12,000 vehicles and we’ve seen a very high customer acceptance rate," Gunsberg said.
“Any repairs, including the latest clutch fitment, are completed under warranty. We’ve extended the warranty for wet shudder up to seven years, dry shudder up to five years and 10 years on the TCM. Any which way, we’ve got you covered," he added.
Nonetheless, he did acknowledge that some customers that may have gone through the process of having their car’s transmission fixed multiple times had lost faith in their vehicle and Ford was actively working with them to either offer a refund or a replacement vehicle.
“Some customers have had a tough run with these issues and have simply lost faith with their vehicle and we get that," Gunsberg said. Hence, the ACCC filing.
"We’ve improved our response times to customers and have been repairing vehicles, compensating customers, and, depending on the circumstances, providing full refunds and providing replacement vehicles."
When a vehicle is brought back, it is then collected, fixed, and, Ford freely admits, it is then on-sold in the used car market with the latest iteration of the company’s transmission fix.
These second-hand cars are also covered by the same extended warranty and will have the same application of Australian Consumer Law applied when it comes to fixing an existing issue, if the transmission problem ever presented itself in the future.
After our time with the problematic Fiesta, we also drove a 2013 Ford Focus with a new clutch pack, brought up to current final-fix specification. The shuddering issue did not present itself, though it is impossible for us to correctly assess a very recently repaired vehicle in such a short period of time.
As for how long that fix will last, Cruse says the dual-clutch transmissions need to be treated like a manual gearbox when it comes to wear and tear, in so much as to say the clutch will last around 160,000km from new, as a rough figure.
Much like a manual gearbox, the wear rate is affected by driving style and conditions, with vehicles driven in hilly inner city areas more susceptible to shorter clutch life than those driven on the open highway.
As it stands at the time of publication, the latest specification of Ford’s dual-clutch transmission solution has been in the market since late 2016 and so far there are no further issues that have presented themselves from customers.
For those that have simply lost faith after so many iterations of problems and solutions, Ford offers a refund or replacement program.
As to the future of the PowerShift transmission? It’s fair to say, it’s not bright. With the latest-generation Focus already ditching the dual-clutch system for a conventional torque converter transmission, it’s more than likely that the next Ford Fiesta and other models will follow suit.
The PowerShift transmissions represent a dark chapter in the Ford Motor Company's history and, by its own admission, it didn’t deal with the issues as quickly and as effectively as it could have. It ought to prove a humbling experience for the American brand, though, and that can - should - only be a good thing.