fordHaving to take our 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid (with a whoppingly low 12,600 miles on the odometer) into the dealership for service this week, I’d been meaning to write about the odd temporary malfunction that prompted the visit and what was determined (more like “best guessed”) to be its strange cause — essentially a street-level variation on the principle as to why you’re not supposed to use your cellphone during flight.

So we were coming back from our Eastern Sierra vacation two Saturdays ago, southbound on the 14 Freeway in the HOV lane in Santa Clarita a few miles from the 5, when I went to accelerate into the lane to the right to get out from in front of a tailgater and encountered no response. I pressed on the pedal a little more and more until it was all the way to the floorboard, but nothing. All systems were operating: the engine was running, the A/C was blowing, but when I’d give the vehicle gas it wouldn’t respond. Noticing a “What the hell does that mean!?” wrench icon light was now illuminated on the dash, I let Susan know we had a problem and began carefully transitioning to the far outside lane in case everything suddenly quit. But since we were on a good downhill portion of the freeway we were able to continue with the flow of traffic. It was when we started to go up a slight incline and the car quickly its momentum that I knew we had to get off the freeway.

Exiting at Sand Canyon with the vehicle idling uncharacteristically high but the accelerator now a bit more responsive at low speeds, I crawled us into a service station and stopped. After a few moments of the engine still revving in park I decided to turn it off and let it rest for a spell. Starting it back up, she revved high again for about 10-20 interminable seconds before the electric motor kicked in and all ran silently. The wrench icon on the dash was now no longer lighted. Hmmmm.

Susan took Ranger for a leg-stretch down Soledad Canyon while I popped the hood just to make sure nothing looked wrong/broken/disconnected. And in fact other than making the surprise WTF discovery of  accumulations of old-ish looking rat poop in the wells where the front suspension/shocks bolt to the vehicle — proof that our garage rats had taken to nesting/resting there (perhaps moreso during the colder months) — everything else looked fine.

Not confident about getting back on the freeway, the decision was to plot a surface-street course home via “Gladys” (that’s what I call the GPS), cross our fingers and see if we can get there. At worst if the car quits, at least it’s in a safer, slower environment where we can pull over, call AAA, and get towed.

The good news is that it worked and we arrived home without further incident (and in the process I was happy to discover the long unknown street route between the San Fernando Valley and Santa Clarita (you know, in case I ever want to bike between the two places). The bad news is that we knew we had to get this curious incident examined.

So fast forward to this last Wednesday when I take the Ford to Sunrise Ford in North Hollywood, where I explained the above to the service manager, and in response he was curious of either my wife or myself have iPhones. I told him we both do, that my wifes iPhone5 is paired with the car via bluetooth and that at one extended point about 120 miles before the incident she was also using her iPad to surf the internet. He explained somewhat sheepishly that there’s apparently a conflict between the Apple devices and Ford Hybrids that can produce interference resulting in similar situations.

Seriously?

He explained that he’s personally seen cases involving the city of Burbank’s hybrids fail to start as a result of their operators packing iPhones. He added that Ford’s aware of the problem but so far there’s been no solution.

Huh.

In my looooong history with a variety of motorized vehicles, this was my first time hearing a powertrain problem caused by a possible “programming glitch.”

Brave new world.

Of course, he took the vehicle and put it through a panel of diagnostic tests, wherein he said he failed to recreate the loss of acceleration. The best he could do was recommend a series of software upgrades that may or may not eliminate future incidents and of course was not covered by any warranty. Oh, and by the way, I also needed a new A/C filter. Total estimate: $180. Sigh… sold.

I asked: Does the new software include a “pre-flight” warning to turn off all Apple devices prior to departure?

He chuckled.

I didn’t. And now basically all we can do is cross our fingers and hope it doesn’t happen again. That’s tolerable for short city trips. But you can bet during our next longer drive there’ll be some pins and needles in the driver’s seat I’ll be sitting on throughout the journey. NOT the way I like to roll.