WASHINGTON (Aug. 4, 2000)—A firestorm of controversy is surrounding Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/ Firestone Inc. concerning Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone ATX, ATX II or Wilderness radial tires.
The week of July 31 saw the following events:
*Ford launched an internal investigation of tire-related accidents involving 40 million company-made vehicles, including the 3.5 million Explorers the company has built.
"We are going back in our records—as far as we can in our records—to look at complaints on tires and to see if there is a pattern," said Helen Petrauskas, Ford vice president of environmental and safety engineering, at an Aug. 2 press briefing in Detroit attended by Automotive News, a sister publication of TB.
*The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirmed an Aug. 2 USA Today article that it now has reports of 21 deaths and 193 crashes allegedly involving tread separation on the ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires, mostly installed as original equipment on Ford Explorers.
*Ford acknowledged it had recalled nearly 47,000 vehicles in six countries—Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Malaysia—for tread separation problems, though it denied the recalls were motivated by anything inherent in the tires.
Based on this, Strategic Safety, an Arlington-based auto safety research and advocacy group, called on Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone to recall all Explorers equipped with the Firestone tires manufactured between model years 1991 and 2000. The companies, however, dismissed Strategic Safety as a hired gun for plaintiffs´ attorneys.
NHTSA began its investigation into the Explorer-ATX issue May 2, after receiving 90 complaints including reports of 33 crashes, 27 injuries and four deaths.
An agency spokeswoman said the new figures—reflecting complaints made after the investigation opened—reported by USA Today were correct, but denied the newspaper´s assertion that NHTSA knew about serious problems with the tires for a decade.
"We had a report of a blowout and another of a tread separation 10 years ago," she said. "Over the next 10 years, we had maybe 15 complaints." Only after a Feb. 8, 2000 broadcast about the tires by KHOU-TV in Houston, Texas, she added, did complaints multiply to the point that the agency felt an investigation was warranted.
In announcing the internal investigation, Ms. Petrauskas said Ford engineers were trying to duplicate the situations of tire-related accidents to uncover the circumstances behind them.
Also, Ford probably will seek changes in the way warranty data involving OE tires is reported, she said. Currently, such information goes to tire makers instead of auto makers.
While Ms. Petrauskas didn´t rule out the possibility of dropping Bridgestone/Firestone as a supplier if customer fears escalate, a Ford spokeswoman said Aug. 3 that the company is not now considering such a move.
"The situation with Firestone is complicated, we´re investigating it, and that´s all we can say," she said. "They´re a valued supplier."
Ford, meanwhile, said it knew of about 25 product liability lawsuits involving alleged tread separation, the last two filed in Jacksonville, Fla., in July. But the only one brought to trial so far resulted in vindication for Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone, the company said.
Sean Kane, a partner and co-founder in Strategic Safety, said his group knew of "at least 100 cases in litigation" involving the Explorer and its original equipment tires.
"Ford may or may not be a defendant in all of them, and also Ford has settled its part of a number of these cases," Mr. Kane said.
Strategic Safety, on its Web site, said the Firestone tires "appear to have a long tread life that may exceed its (sic) internal design capabilities."
Ford, in a June 16 letter to NHTSA , said it had "identified over 500 potentially related lawsuit and claim files" involving the Explorer and the Firestone tires.
Mr. Kane said his group found out about Ford´s recall of Explorers in Venezuela from a paragraph in El Nacional, Venezuela´s biggest newspaper. It had heard rumors of recalls in other countries, but couldn´t confirm them before the Aug. 2 USA Today article revealed them, he added.
"We don´t understand why they´re recalling Explorers in Venezuela but not taking care of the problem in the United States," he said.
A Ford spokeswoman confirmed the company had sent out recall notices involving 39,812 Explorers and F-series trucks in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela; 6,800 Explorers and Mountaineers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States; and 300 Explorers in Malaysia and Thailand.
In a prepared statement from its Detroit headquarters, Ford said the Venezuelan recall publicized by Strategic Safety was motivated by "a number of external factors," including tire underinflation, overloading, tire damage, bad repairs and excess wear.
"In addition, many of the incidents in Venezuela occurred after driving at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour for multiple hours in extreme heat," the auto maker said. It undertook the recall "in the interest of consumer satisfaction." The statement did not mention the recalls in the other countries.
In a prepared statement, Nashville-based Bridgestone/Firestone blasted Strategic Safety as "a profit-making firm that works to make as much money as possible by helping their personal-injury law firm clients publicize product liability lawsuits that can generate high legal fees." It dismissed the group´s statement as "misleading" and written "with no first-hand knowledge of the situation."
Bridgestone/Firestone defended the safety records of the ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires, but added, "We also take it very seriously any time an individual riding on our tires is harmed in a car accident." The company invited all owners of Firestone tires to visit their nearest company-owned Firestone store for a free safety inspection.
Meanwhile, an Aug. 1 report from Bloomberg News Service in Tokyo said Bridgestone Corp.´s stock price fell 70 yen, to 2,445, on the Nikkei stock exchange, largely because of the Strategic Safety report.¯
Mary Connelly of Crain News Service contributed to this report.