WASHINGTON (Sept. 6, 2000)—Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. today answered questions before two Congressional subcommittees in what was possibly the most embattled time in company history.
BFS headed off a strike by reaching a tentative agreement with the United Steelworkers of America Sept. 4. (See related story.) But that was just about the only good news for the tire maker in the days surrounding Labor Day.
Among the events of the action-packed week were:
* BFS agreed to replace 62,000 mismarked Wilderness AT tires made by Bridgestone/Firestone Venezolana C.A. and sold in Venezuela. The previous week, INDECU—the Venezuelan consumer protection agency—accused BFS and Ford Motor Co. of deliberately withholding information on tire defects from the public and threatened both companies with possible criminal action.
* The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put out a consumer advisory on 1.4 million Firestone tires over and above the 6.5 million already recalled. These tires, in 24 different sizes and models, are said to have tread separation rates exceeding those of the recalled tires, according to NHTSA. BFS said it disagreed with the agency and wouldn´t recall the tires, but added it would gladly inspect those tires and replace them free of charge if found faulty.
* NHTSA also updated its list of complaints related to Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. The agency now has more than 1,400 complaints on file about those tires, including reports of 88 deaths and more than 250 injuries, it said. NHTSA officially upgraded the Firestone investigation begun May 2 to an engineering analysis from a preliminary evaluation.
* Stock prices of parent firm Bridgestone Corp. fell to a seven-year low of 1,200 yen on the Tokyo stock market Sept. 4.
* A 10-year-old boy was killed and six others injured in Texas Sept. 3 when their Ford Explorer lost control and overturned. One of the vehicle´s Firestone tires was shredded, and authorities couldn´t tell at this writing whether that was the cause or the result of the crash. This brought to four the number of persons killed in accidents involving Ford vehicles equipped with Firestone tires since the recall began Aug. 9.
* Fleischman/Hillard, the St. Louis-based public relations firm BFS hired to field media inquiries about recall-related issues, resigned from the account over Labor Day weekend.
"We worked for them eight weeks," said a spokeswoman for the agency. "We put our best people on the account, and gave them our best counsel. But in the end it became evident that we could no longer be of service."
Bridgestone/Firestone officials could not be reached for comment on this or the other issues.
Ford—Bridgestone/Firestone´s supposed partner in the recall, which sometimes has acted like its nemesis—has had its own media emergencies to deal with. Ford CEO Jacques Nasser was forced to reverse himself Sept. 1 and agree to testify at today´s hearings before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and two subcommittees of the House Commerce Committee.
Mr. Nasser originally said he would send Ford engineering executives Helen Petrauskas and Tom Baughman to the hearings, but changed his tune after congressmen said they were "miffed" at his refusal to appear. Ford spokesmen explained Mr. Nasser was too busy directing the recall to come to Washington.
Bridgestone/Firestone CEO Masatoshi Ono has said all along he will testify at the hearings. Also scheduled to appear at one or more of them are Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater; newly appointed NHTSA administrator Sue Bailey; and consumer advocates Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen and Clarence M. Ditlow III of the Center for Auto Safety.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has also scheduled a hearing on the recall Sept. 12 before the Senate Commerce Committee. The committee hasn´t yet released a witness list, but many of the same people are expected to testify.
While Ford and BFS haven´t always sung the same tune during the current crisis, Ford seemed to be on the verge of declaring war when INDECU recommended criminal charges against the two companies Aug. 31.
In a teleconference the same day, Mr. Nasser said the Venezuelan situation was "a tire issue, not a vehicle issue," to contradict INDECU´s contention that the problem was the result of mounting the Firestone tires on the Ford Explorer. He also said his company had "an extremely difficult and disappointing relationship" with BFS which it was "now taking one day at a time."
Ford undertook a "consumer satisfaction" program in August 1999, recalling about 40,000 Ford vehicles to replace their Firestone Wilderness original equipment tires with Goodyear Wranglers. The auto maker said it urged BFS in August 2000 to recall all the Wilderness tires made at the Valencia, Venezuela, plant, because some were mismarked as having an extra nylon ply that Ford had requested.
Only on Sept. 4, however, did BFS agree to replace the mismarked Venezuelan tires. At an Aug. 31 teleconference held just after the Ford event, BFS Executive Vice President John Lampe said, "We want to do everything we can to continue our long-term relationship with Ford."
At around the same time, it was discovered that Bridgestone/Firestone would no longer be the sole source of tires for the Ford Explorer. Officially, Ford said it would dual-source tires for the 2002 Explorer without naming the second tire supplier, but a source within the company confirmed that Michelin North America Inc. would be the second supplier.
NHTSA´s consumer advisory issued Sept. 1 also suggested some asperity between the agency and Bridgestone/Firestone.
In the advisory, NHTSA said it met with BFS officials Aug. 30 and recommended adding the 1.4 million extra tires to the recall.
"On Aug. 31, Firestone advised NHTSA that it would not voluntarily expand the recall at this time," the agency said. "We are continuing our investigation, which may result in an order directing Firestone to recall these tires and any other defective tires."
Until the investigation is complete, however, all NHTSA can do is advise motorists about its concerns, it said.
"Since Firestone has chosen not to expand the recall at this time, you may not be able to obtain free replacement tires from Firestone," the agency said. "However, in light of these concerns, NHTSA recommends that you consider replacing the tires in question and that you retain all documentation."
The tires included in the consumer advisory were ATX, Firehawk ATX, ATX 23 Degree, Widetrack Radial Baja, Widetrack Radial Baja A/S, Wilderness AT and Wilderness HT tires, both 15- and 16-inch, passenger and light truck. Most were made at the BFS facility in Decatur, Ill., although some of the ATX and Widetrack Radial Baja tires were made in Oklahoma City, Okla., and some of the Wilderness AT in Wilson, N.C.
The vast majority were for the replacement market, though a small fraction were original equipment on the 1991 Chevy Blazer, 1991-94 Nissan pickup and 1996-98 Ford F150. A few of the models were sold under private brand names.
In a press release, BFS assured customers it will inspect the NHTSA-listed tires free at any company-owned store or authorized Firestone dealership.
"Obviously, if there is a problem, we´ll fix it," the company said. "If a customer is still concerned about their (sic) tires, we will replace the tires at no cost to the customers; we will use competitors´ products if necessary."
But Bridgestone/Firestone declined to add the tires to the official recall, because "our preliminary review of the advisory reveals differences between our information about these tires and the agency´s."
Both NHTSA and Bridgestone/Firestone said they expected most of the tires to be retired from service by now. "Our estimates show fewer than half of these 1.4 million tires are still in use after years of service and miles of safe driving," the company said.