WASHINGTON (Aug. 18, 2000)—The storm of controversy over Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness A/T tires reached hurricane force the week of Aug. 14, even as Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. worked overtime to avert the tempest.
The company publicly outlined its voluntary recall and reimbursement policies on its Web site and in a full-page advertisement published Aug. 16 in 41 major U.S. newspapers.
It also allowed Ford Motor Co. to release field data on Firestone tires, showing that the P235/75R15 ATX and ATX II tires, and the same size of Wilderness tires from the company´s plant in Decatur, Ill., had much higher failure rates than other sizes or models.
As of Aug. 16, the company had replaced more than 200,000 tires, was producing some 7,000 tires a day more than normal and expected to complete the recall by next spring, according to company spokespersons.
Despite this, two auto safety advocacy groups called Aug. 14 for a recall of all ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires, regardless of size or place of manufacture. They insisted the tires have an inherent design defect and that the Ford-Firestone data are a whitewash. They also claimed to find a smoking gun in the discrepancy between Ford Motor Co.´s recommended air pressure, 26 psi, on Firestone original equipment tires for Ford Explorers, and Bridgestone/Firestone´s recommended pressure of 30 psi.
Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford defended both the failure data and the pressure recommendations. They said that teams of experts from both Ford and Bridgestone Corp. in Tokyo went to Decatur to uncover the reasons for the high failure rate found in 15-inch Wilderness tires from the plant.
"The goal is for the experts to stay on site until they understand the root cause of the problem," a Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman said during an Aug. 14 media conference call.
As for the recommended pressures, both companies said that ride harshness—not tire structural integrity or vehicle stability, as the safety advocates claimed—was the only reason for the discrepancy. Ford said it will now recommend a pressure range for the tires between 26 and 30 psi.
Bridgestone/Firestone commenced its 6.5-million-tire recall amid worsening news about the tires´ performance. New figures released Aug. 15 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted "over 750" complaints regarding the Firestone tires, including 62 deaths and 100 injuries, according to a NHTSA spokeswoman.
Fifty-seven of the deaths occurred in Ford Explorers equipped with the tires, of which 52 involved vehicle rollovers.
"Whenever anyone is seriously injured or killed when riding on our tires, we are extremely concerned and saddened," said John Lampe, Bridgestone/Firestone executive vice president, regarding the new figures. "We are working as quickly as we can to get to the root cause of the problem and finish the recall."
To meet consumer demand during the recall, Bridgestone/Firestone has doubled production of relevant replacement tires, Mr. Lampe said. The company expects to build its capacity of the replacement tires to 350,000 next month and to 500,000 by January, he said.
"We´re getting them out to our locations as fast as we can," Mr. Lampe said. "But there could be some delays." There were widespread reports of shortages among the network of 1,500 company-owned stores, 8,500 authorized Bridgestone/Firestone dealers and 2,900 Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealers, and Mr. Lampe called it a "very, very difficult" situation.
To alleviate shortages, Bridgestone/Firestone has called on some of its competitors to supply replacement tires. In fact, Mr. Lampe said, a customer may request tires from a manufacturer other than Bridgestone/Firestone if he chooses.
"We have asked our stores and participating dealers to take care of the customer, and if this means supplying him with a competitor´s tires, so be it," he said.
In response to Bridgestone/Firestone´s request, Goodyear anticipates it will increase output in relevant tire lines fivefold by Oct. 1, according to a Goodyear spokesman. "We´ve got molds being made right now, and every mold we have is being used right now," he said.
One of the tires Goodyear will supply is the Wrangler RT/S, which was standard equipment on the Ford Explorer from 1995 to 1997, the spokesman said.
A Michelin North America Inc. spokesman said Ford has approved 10 new Michelin fitments for the Explorer, including tires bearing the Michelin, B.F. Goodrich and Uniroyal brands. "We will increase production 225 percent for those specific models," he said, adding that company plants in Georgia, Oklahoma and Nova Scotia make those tires.
Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., on the other hand, said it wasn´t involved in the recall effort. "We received an inquiry from Nashville early on, but nothing final, so your guess is as good as mine," a Cooper spokeswoman said. Continental General Tire Co. did not return phone calls.
The Decatur plant is not producing any of the replacement tires in this recall, and no longer makes those lines of tires, Mr. Lampe said. The company phased out production of those tires at Decature beginning last January, and the decision was part of "the normal size and line moves between our plants," he said.
According to the data released by Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone, the tire maker had 2,030 adjustment claims on P235/75R15 tires between 1991 and 2000, more than four times as many as in other SUV sizes combined. Claims for tread separations on Wilderness A/T OE tires were 22 per million, less than one-eleventh the 248 per million for ATX OE tires.
Among the Wilderness tires, virtually the only failures were found in 15-inch tires from Decatur, whereas the same tires from facilities in Aiken, S.C., Wilson, N.C., and Joliette, Quebec, performed at "world-class" levels, according to Tom Baughman, Ford engineering director for North American trucks.
"For the tires from the non-Decatur plants, the failure rate is zero," Mr. Baughman said.
At the same time, Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone declined to speculate on the reason for the Decatur Wilderness tire´s higher failure rate, and specifically ruled out the idea that poor quality control or workmanship—whether arising from the 1995 strike at the facility, or for another reason—could be at fault.
"The Decatur plant has been in production since 1963, and we are very proud of the plant and the work force," Mr. Lampe said. "We have very strenuous (quality) policies and procedures that all of our people follow, and very detailed education and training programs."
On the other hand, the safety advocacy groups Public Citizen and Safetyforum.com claim the problem can only be either workmanship or design.
"If this is a workmanship problem, I´ll eat your tie," said Ralph Hoar, director of Safetyforum.com, at an Aug. 14 press conference. And if it´s a design problem, according to Mr. Hoar and Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook, then it can´t be limited to one size or one plant.
This was the message Mr. Hoar, Ms. Claybrook and others gave at the press conference at Public Citizen headquarters demanding an immediate expansion of the Firestone recall.
Ms. Claybrook accused Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone of surrounding other lines and sizes of tires with cloaks of secrecy, insisting on gag orders in settled suits.
"NHTSA has not subpoenaed this information, even though it has the authority to do so," she said. She also criticized the agency for "the lack of a proactive program to identify defects" which could have led to a recall much earlier.
Also, asked Ms. Claybrook, Mr. Hoar and others, why did Ford recall 16-inch Firestone tires in various foreign countries but not in the U.S. and why were no problems reported with any other tire lines or sizes made at Decatur?
Displayed at the conference were two blown, mangled Wilderness tires which were manufactured at the Joliette facility, according to the safety advocates.
While Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone did not address the gag orders, they staunchly defended the accuracy of the data they posted about tire failure rates.
"Anyone and any group can make unsubstantiated claims," a Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman said. "Our data clearly show that the Wilderness A/T tires, with the expection of the 15-inch tire from Decatur, are good and well-produced tires, and even the failure rates for the Decatur tires are not alarmingly high."
The recall of 16-inch tires in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, according to Mr. Baughman, was strictly a customer satisfaction issue and had nothing to do with the inherent design of the tires—even though Goodyear tires were used as replacements.
"In Saudi Arabia, we saw people deflating tires to operate in sand, then forgetting to reinflate them and running them on the roads at high speeds," he said. "We also saw a lot of plugs and some unbelievable things to repair tires." As for the Goodyear replacement tires, "We asked local marketing people what their preference was. Their choice was to replace the Firestone tires with another brand, and Goodyear was the selected brand."
Third-party experts disagreed about the reasonableness and likelihood of one size of one tire line having a higher failure rate than all the other lines and sizes coming from the same plant.
"It´s a strange case, but it could happen," said Charles Gold, a Dallas-based expert witness who represents mostly defendants in tire cases. "As far as a 15-inch versus a 16-inch tire, they may be entirely different tires on the inside."
A 15-inch tire in one company´s line, Mr. Gold explained, may be a passenger tire design, while the 16-inch model in the same line may be a light truck tire.
On the other hand, Dick Baumgardner, whose firm—Tire Consultants Inc. in Alpharetta, Ga.—specializes in representing plaintiffs in tire cases, was more skeptical.
"There are 45 Firestone tires we´ve looked at, and only 28 have been from Decatur," Mr. Baumgardner said. "Nine have been from Wilson, five from Canada, one from LaVergne (Tenn.), and a couple of others couldn´t be identified as to place of manufacture."
Concerning the recalled tires, Bridgestone/Firestone said 60 percent of them were OE for Ford and about 40 percent from the replacement market. "Very, very few" were supplied to other auto makers, the company said.
Sixty to seventy percent of the tread separations involving Firestone tires on Ford Explorers have occurred on the rear tires, a Ford spokesman said. The company isn´t sure why, but speculates that "the opportunity for overload is most prevalent in the rear," he said.
Also, as opposed to previous reports, Mr. Lampe said Bridgestone/Firestone will replace any recalled, mounted tire the owner brings to one of its dealers free of charge, even if the tread depth is below the usual threshold of 2/32-inch.
The company´s stated recall policy is that, besides replacing any mounted tire free of charge, it will reimburse completely those tire buyers who replaced the tires on a prorated basis from a Firestone dealer between Jan. 1 and Aug. 8, 2000.
For those who replaced the tires at a competing dealership, the company will reimburse owners at up to $100 per tire, including taxes and mounting costs. The retail price of the ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires normally is just under $100, Mr. Lampe said.