WASHINGTON (June 8, 2001)—Bad feelings between—and bad publicity about—Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. continued to multiply during the first days of June, as the following headlines flashed across the media:
*BFS released the results of a study performed by an Ohio State University mechanical engineering professor which showed that Ford Explorers are prone to “oversteer” in the case of tire tread separations.
*Plaintiffs' attorneys filed motions in Indianapolis federal district court asking Judge Sarah Evans Barker to oversee Ford's recall of 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires and order Ford to recall up to 4 million Explorers, model years 1991-2001.
*Goodyear, Continental Tire North America Inc. and Michelin North America Inc. all announced plans to provide millions of replacement tires each to Ford, with Goodyear saying it would provide more than half the total.
*Florida's top law enforcement official—who is leading a sweeping investigation of the Ford Explorer-Firestone tire accidents—suggested the temperature resistance grade for the Firestone Wilderness tires on the Ford Explorer indicated negligence on both Ford and Firestone's parts.
BFS turned over the study by Dennis Guenther of Ohio State University to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration May 31, along with a letter from John T. Lampe, the company's chairman, president and CEO, requesting that NHTSA open an investigation into the safety of Ford Explorers. The Nashville-based tire maker also released the results of the Guenther study to the media.
Most highway vehicles, according to Bridgestone/Firestone publicity on the study, are designed for “understeer”—a cornering situation where the front of a vehicle turns less sharply than a driver intends. This design feature allows the average driver to retain greater control over the vehicle.
However, in comparing the 1996 and 2000 Ford Explorers with the 2001 Jeep Cherokee and the 1996 Chevrolet Blazer, Mr. Guenther found that the Explorers were prone to “oversteer,” or too-sharp cornering, in the case of tread separations on a left rear tire.
“An oversteer vehicle is not safe at highway speeds in the hands of an average driver,” BFS quoted Mr. Guenther as saying. “This must be regarded as a highway safety defect within the meaning of the NHTSA's charter.”
Ford replied that “real world data” show the Explorer to be safe.
“You can talk about testing data endlessly,” the auto maker said in a prepared statement. “We are replacing Firestone Wilderness AT tires because they have elevated rates of tread separation in the real world. Real world data also show the Explorer is among the safest vehicles on the road.”
NHTSA, meanwhile, gave every sign of taking its time with Bridgestone/Firestone's request.
“Firestone presented us with information, but no formal petition for an investigation, and we have no idea when there will be a formal response,” an agency spokesman said. NHTSA has turned down 11 previous petitions to examine the stability of sport-utility vehicles.
Repeated calls to Mr. Guenther's office in Columbus, Ohio, went unanswered.
A few hours west in Indianapolis, Judge Sarah Evans Barker gave Ford and Firestone until June 5 to respond to the motion by plaintiffs' attorneys in personal injury suits against the two companies for Ms. Barker to take on the oversight of Ford's 13-million-tire recall. Copies of the Ford and Firestone filings could not be obtained at presstime.
Ms. Barker—who already has more than 200 Ford-Firestone cases consolidated under her jurisdiction—hasn't yet ruled on a June 1 motion by the plaintiffs' attorneys to order the recall of 4 million Explorers. The lawyers claim the vehicles are “inherently unsafe” and can't be made safe; therefore, they want Ms. Barker to require Ford to provide either cash reimbursements or new vehicles to Explorer owners.
Ford replied that the motion was “frivolous” and that the lawyers lacked proof of their assertions.
Meanwhile, all three of the major tire companies Ford contacted for replacement tires in the recall have affirmed their plans to help the auto maker.
Goodyear, the first to announce its strategy, now says its plans are “on schedule” to provide more than half of the tires Ford needs. The Akron-based tire maker has stepped up production of 26 Ford-approved replacement tires tenfold and increased shipments to nearly 9,000 outlets, including independent tire dealers, Ford-Mercury dealers and company-owned stores, Goodyear said in a press release June 4.
Also on June 4, Michelin issued a news release saying it has ramped up passenger and light truck tire production more than 200 percent to help the Ford recall, as well as making replacement tires available at 11,000 points of sale. Both Goodyear and Michelin affirmed they would make replacement tires available free of charge at their outlets.
Fewer details were available about Conti's plans to supply Ford with replacement tires, and spokespersons couldn't be reached for comment. But Conti said June 4 it had increased production at its six North American tire plants, and would also provide Continental- and General-brand replacement tires free of charge for Wilderness tire owners who go to Ford-Mercury dealers, independent tire dealers or tire wholesalers.
Ford has listed all the authorized replacement tires for the Firestone Wilderness tires on its Web site, www.ford.com. The information also is available from the tire makers themselves.
Ford asserted at its May 22 press conference announcing the recall that the Goodyear Wrangler and Firestone Wilderness tires supplied as original equipment for the Explorer were made to the exact same specifications. Some observers, however, noted that the Wranglers and the Wilderness tires on the Explorer had different temperature resistance grades under the Uniform Tire Quality Grading (UTQG) System mandated by NHTSA. The Wilderness tires had a temperature resistance grade of C, meaning that they met minimum standards in that area under federal safety standards; the Wrangler tires had a temperature resistance grade of B, denoting a better standard of performance.
“I don't think we make any tires with a C grade in temperature resistance,” a Goodyear spokesman said.
Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth—who is leading an investigation by attorneys general in 38 states on the Ford-Firestone issue—said the temperature resistance rating on the Wilderness tires was one more reason, in his opinion, to consider Ford and Firestone equally at fault in the fatal rollover accidents.
“I don't know why they decided to put a C-rated tire for temperature on a vehicle like this, and a passenger tire at that, not even a light truck tire,” Mr. Butterworth told Reuters.
A Ford spokesman said the two tires were the same in the performance criteria demanded by Ford—such as traction and stopping distance—but that the temperature resistance grade was at the discretion of the tire maker.
“A C temperature grade is appropriate for a tire if it is well-manufactured and meets performance criteria,” he said.
Whatever the temperature grade was, Bridgestone/Firestone “built a tire to the specifications Ford asked,” said a spokeswoman for the Nashville-based tire maker. “At all points in the process, we made them aware of everything we were doing, and they approved it.”
The BFS spokeswoman also said she wondered whether any of the replacement tires approved by Ford for the Wilderness tire had temperature resistance grades of C. The Ford spokesman said he didn't know offhand.
Meanwhile, there was good news for Ford from the office of Venezuela's attorney general, which said that Samuel Ruh Rios, head of the Venezuelan consumer protection agency INDECU, had not formally requested a recall of Ford Explorers in that country.
The week of May 28, several news organization reported that Mr. Ruh had made just such a request. A spokesman for Ford Motor de Venezuela said the company had heard nothing from INDECU, and had been frustrated in its attempts to obtain documents from Mr. Ruh which, he claimed, showed that the Ford Explorer is defective.
The recall of Wilderness tires is now worldwide, Ford said regarding reports of tires replaced in China, Venezuela and Spain. “If there is a U.S.-made Ford vehicle with Wilderness tires exported anywhere in the world, the tires will be recalled,” a spokeswoman said. Most recently, the auto maker announced it would replace 15-, 16- and 17-inch Wilderness tires on approximately 23,000 Ford vehicles throughout Europe, mostly Explorers.