Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Jeep Falls Victim to Death Wobble Sensationalism

Imagine my surprise to read a news story on Autoblog.com (with video) about a local TV news station reporting on the notorious Jeep "death wobble" shortly after I published a blog post about it.  I'm both frustrated and annoyed because this is nothing more than another instance of a biased reporter's sensationalism misleading the public, disseminating disinformation, and generating hype (and thus, advertising revenue) at the expense of an innocent car manufacturer, their dealerships, and their customer base.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not dismissing the reality of "death wobble."  I have a close friend with a 2008 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon who has been dealing with this problem on and off since he bought his Jeep brand-new.  As someone who works in the 4x4 industry, this is an issue with which I'm intimately familiar.  It's a problem that's as common on Jeeps as it is on almost every other 4x4.  And as happens with the dealerships for every other automotive brand, his dealer hasn't been helpful in solving his problem.

Allow me make this perfectly clear: this is not a problem that's exclusive to Jeeps.  We simply hear about it happening more on Jeeps because of three main reasons:

  1. There are many more Jeeps in the world than any other 4x4s
  2. A much higher percentage of Jeeps have had their suspension modified than any other 4x4s
  3. Jeeps are the most popular vehicles for hardcore offroad use, so they are more likely to have much more severe wear to their suspension and steering components than any other 4x4s
I may be a Jeep owner, but that doesn't mean I'm commenting from a biased standpoint.  Quite to the contrary, I've traditionally been a Toyota and Suzuki owner, but I have sincere appreciation for all offroad-capable 4x4s.  I've personally experienced "death wobble" on my Suzuki Samurais, Suzuki Sidekick and Geo Tracker, a Toyota 4Runner, a Toyota Land Cruiser, and a Steyr-Daimler-Puch Pinzgauer 710M.  For what it's worth, the two Jeeps I've owned (1998 Grand Cherokee and 2010 Jeep Wrangler) have never exhibited "death wobble."

It's interesting that the news reporters are targeting specifically 2005-2010 Jeep Wranglers, because the Wranglers that fall into this year range have completely different steering and suspension parts.  The 1997-2006 Jeep Wrangler TJ uses the same steering setup as the 1984-2001 Jeep Cherokee XJ, 1985-1992 Jeep Comanche MJ, 1987-1995 Jeep Wrangler YJ, 2004-2006 Jeep Wrangler LJ, 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ, and 1999-2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee WJ.  The new Jeep Wrangler JK uses an entirely different steering setup from these earlier Jeep models; the new JKs have also used this new "crossover steering" configuration for their full run from 2007-2012 with no significant changes that would make the 2011-2012 models behave any differently from the 2007-2010 models.  It's curious why KGO-TV is picking on the last 2 years of one kind of Jeep and all but the last 2 years of an entirely different kind of Jeep.  Do they not know what they're talking about?

There can be any one single or combination of problems that lead to the steering oscillation known as "death wobble."  It ultimately stems from one root cause: the ability of the front axle to move laterally in relation to the steering.  If you solve this issue, then it is physically impossible for "death wobble" to rear its ugly head.  The problem can usually be masked by increasing steering caster and increasing steering dampening, but a properly tight front-end does not need these "cheater" tactics to resolve "death wobble;"  My 2010 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon on 35-inch tires drives perfectly smoothly without a steering stabilizer installed.

If you solve this list of the only possible sources of looseness in the suspension and steering, your steering oscillation will be gone:
  • Worn track bar (panhard bar) bushings
  • Worn drag link ends or tie rod ends at the steering knuckles or pitman arm
  • Worn steering knuckle ball joints or kingpin bearings
  • Worn control arm bushings at the frame mounts or the axle mounts
  • Improperly balanced wheels
  • Out-of-round tires
  • Poor alignment

If all of those components have been checked and confirmed that they are not loose or out of alignment, then you may have a more severe problem in one of the following areas of the chassis:
  • Worn steering box sector shaft bearing
  • Worn steering box worm gear
  • Loose or torn steering box frame mount
  • Cracked track bar (panhard bar) brackets on either the frame side or axle side
  • Bent or cracked control arm mounts on the frame or axles
  • Bent control arms

The installation of a suspension lift kit changes the geometry of the suspension and the steering; the steering alignment must be adjusted to compensate for the new suspension geometry.  Aftermarket wheels are almost always a different width and offset (backspacing) than what the steering was engineered around.  Aftermarket wheels are also rarely hubcentric; lugcentric wheels are much more prone to causing vibrations due to improper centering.  Aftermarket tires are generally much heavier than OEM tires, and certain brands are expected by those of us in the offroad industry to be significantly out-of-round and very unevenly balanced.  Steel wheels are notorious for causing vibrations due to their multipiece construction where the welds can cause runout.  Tires can also get packed with mud or snow, or have their wheel weights knocked off while offroading.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, Rock Krawler Suspension put together this video showing what sort of wear and looseness can cause the "death wobble":


A trained technician can almost always identify the primary source of the oscillation by eye while an assistant cycles the steering as seen in the video above, but many people have had great success identifying chassis problems by mounting a GoPro or Drift camera to the vehicle's undercarriage and aiming it at the various suspension and steering components to record the oscillation happening in realtime in realworld situations.  Regardless, Jeep should not be held accountable for suspension and steering behavior that results from a vehicle's owner inadequately maintaining or installing nonstandard suspension, steering, wheels, or tires on their vehicle.

Here is a nice diagram of the Jeep Wrangler JK's front suspension and steering components from Project-JK's Basic Do-It-Yourself Basic Front End Alignment guide to help you identify the various steering and suspension components I've mentioned:


Sensationalism and disinformation such as KGO-TV's news story discredits the reporters and the news agency, takes advantage of the innocent in order to make a buck, and overall is a detriment to society.  It's unfortunate that Consumer Reports Magazine started this tactic several years ago of disparaging car manufacturers for a profit:



It's even more unfortunate that in spite of this type of exploitation having proven repeatedly to backfire over the long term in spite of the short-term financial gains, formerly respectable news agencies such as KGO-TV ABC7 continue to resort to CR's failed tactics.

Hopefully this shitstorm will blow over quickly without too much damage to Jeep's reputation or their customers' vehicles' resale values.  In the meantime, individual Jeep dealerships' service departments need to focus on addressing the root causes of the steering oscillation to make sure they're solving the problem for their customers instead of dismissing the behavior as "normal" or a "design flaw" or "the customer's fault."  Uncooperative dealerships only escalate the problem and continue to feed the trolls.

On top of that, the owners of Jeeps and all other 4x4s who have modified their vehicles' suspension and steering are responsible for fixing the problem themselves - hundreds of Internet forums have threads dedicated to helping people fix this common problem, and any respectable 4x4 shop can help owners pinpoint and resolve the problem.  This post on JKOwners.com is particularly helpful.

5 comments:

  1. Geoffrey,

    You throw around the term "sensationalism" again and again, yet I see nothing in your article that indicates any part of our reports were wrong. Saying death wobble happens in other vehicles, too, does not negate the fact that it happens in Jeeps. Your background on the problem is interesting, but it still wonder -- should people who purchase brand new vehicles have to deal with this, within the first 20,000 miles, which sometimes happens? Yes, the problem occurs in lifted Jeeps, but we continue to get complaints from owners of off the shelf vehicles. As I reported, it's something I experienced, as well. Thanks for posting this to my facebook page. I welcome the civilized give and take.

    Dan Noyes
    ABC 7 News

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  2. Thanks for taking the time to reply, Dan. I have three main problems with your story as I see it:

    The first is that your story implies that "death wobble" is a fairly common occurrence on factory-fresh Jeeps, which it is not. When you consider that there are hundreds of thousands of 2007-present Wranglers out there that haven't had any sort of steering issues, the handful of unresolved cases is an infinitesimally small fraction. The problem is with the individual vehicles experiencing the problem, not with the Jeep Wrangler as a whole. Interesting anecdotes do not make for a tragedy.

    The second issue is that you're implying (targeting?) that this is unique to Jeeps, which it is not. Almost every solid-axle 4x4 since the beginning of time has issues with steering oscillations, primarily because the tie rod directly connects the wheels and knuckle assemblies on both sides of the axle, which gives many times more feedback through the steering as does an independent suspensions' steering. That combined with the larger and heavier 4x4 components (as compared to those on the average car) multiplies the forces and makes steering oscillation inherently more challenging to control. As someone who's worked in the 4WD industry for 17 years, I cannot think of a single solid-axle 4x4 that I have not seen with a "death wobble." This is a common issue for MODIFIED vehicles, but incredibly rare for factory-original ones in good repair. Worn components are the vast majority of the problem, but modified geometry as when a poorly-designed suspension lift is installed is the other primary cause.

    My third an main problem with your report is it's unabashedly biased, hence my accusation of "sensationalism." Normally I'd give you the benefit of the doubt here since it doesn't sound like you're much of a "car guy" who actually understands the engineering behind these vehicles' suspension and steering systems. However, since your story passes off footage of MODIFIED Jeeps with unknown mileage and wear as factory-fresh vehicles, and the fact that you've actively censored "the other side of the story" from other 4x4 experts on your Facebook page demonstrates that you're not being an objective reporter. A reporter who isn't objective must certainly be pushing an agenda, and as the Consumer Reports' fiascoes demonstrated over and over again, quite a profit can be made when a trusted media outlet smears a popular product.

    I don't doubt that you may have experienced this steering oscillation on your Jeep; I just don't think you should be encouraging government involvement in this matter. I acknowledge that it can be frustrating to find a shop to diagnose and repair whatever worn components could be causing your Jeep's oscillation, but what car repair ISN'T frustrating? That's why reputable shops with experienced techs are so valuable if you aren't the "car guy" type who can fix your own vehicle.

    Please don't stoop down to the level of Consumer Reports (Suzuki, Isuzu, Mitsubishi rollovers), Ralph Nader (Corvair handling), or NBC (GM truck explosions). Every one of these stories has been proven over and over to be nothing more than sensationalism that has hurt the news agencies' credibility in the end.

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  3. Dan,

    Your reports aren't wrong per se, but they are incomplete. If people were having engines seize within 20,000 miles you would be verifying their oil change records before you held them up as an example of a design flaw.

    Tire maintenance is just as important as oil changes. You said on Facebook that nobody cares about your tire rotation records, but in fact they do. At least the people who really understand steering and suspension technology do. Tire maintenence is to front end maintenance what oil changes are to engine maintenance.

    Don't be surprised if NHTSA reports back to Congress that they can't do anything if they don't have good data. Of the 600 reports of death wobble that you looked at, how many included a tire rotation history? I did not read 600, but of the sample that I read (about 30) not one mentioned their tire rotatation schedule. Several said that death wobble happened right after a tire rotation, but they did not say how many miles it had been since the last rotation.

    I'd like to give you a suggestion. Interview someone who really understands suspension and steering technology. Vet them with a simple question; can you not only describe the Ackerman Steering Principle, but can you do the math and apply it? If the answer is yes, then you have an expert to interview for your next story.

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  4. Just had the DW today and it scared the crap out of me! I have a 2007 jk factory (no lift). Not happy about driving down the road and having my jeep shake like crazy. This is my 2nd Jeep my first was a Cherokee '99 and I had nothing but issues with that also. Jeep stands behind nothing and I am tired of it! I would never buy another jeep again even though I do love them but I cant afford to keep dumping money in them.

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    Replies
    1. I'd be happy to help you diagnose your Jeep's problem if it's no longer under warranty. The beauty of the JK's solid front axle is that its suspension is very simple and easy to work on. There aren't many parts to wear, and those that do are easy to replace and upgrades are readily available from aftermarket Jeep specialists. How many miles are your Jeep?

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