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2001 — A look into the past: Deadly combination?

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Ford Explorer Firestone tire design

(Editor's Note: This story is part of our #TireBiz30 in which we feature one archived story every day of September to celebrate Tire Business' 30th anniversary. Each story represents one of the most relevant news story published in our pages for that year.)

HILTON HEAD, S.C. —The combination of the Ford Explorer with 15-inch Firestone ATX and Wilderness AT tires created a ticking time bomb, according to speakers at the Clemson University Tire Industry Conference in Hilton Head.

"I see the Ford Explorer as the bomb, and Firestone tires as the detonator," said Thomas J. Wielenga, president of Engineering Insight L.L.C. in Ann Arbor, Mich., at the March 21-23 conference.

Mr. Wielenga, whose firm provides expert testimony in vehicle rollover cases, said the tread separations in the Firestone tires served as a catalyst in the accidents which have claimed the lives of 174 people, according to figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"But Explorers roll over even with good tires," said Mr. Wielenga, who claimed rollover accidents kill 10,000 people in the U.S. every year.

Ford Motor Co. has a rollover test featuring computer-simulated vehicles traveling at 55 mph, according to Mr. Wielenga. However, "you could pass the Ford rollover test, take a real vehicle out on the road and roll over," he said. "There are variables here that cause problems. How do simulated tests relate to real tests?"

Mr. Wielenga exhorted the audience to do its part to prevent rollover accidents. "What you can do is to design tires to be a hero in this area," he said. "Remember, wider is grippin', taller is tippin', and more grip, less tip."

Dennis Byrne, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Akron, and Clarence M. Ditlow III, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, said there were many factors that went into causing the fatal accidents.

Mr. Byrne advanced the "Cascade Theory," which he said is commonly used by analysts who study disasters, as the explanation for the Ford-Firestone situation. In this theory, a lot of small factors build on each other, leading to a major problem.

"If you take a lot of small streams and run them into a river, they cause a tremendous flood," he said. "Unfortunately, it is often hard to identify these small, cascading problems until a tragic event occurs."

In the BFS case, the problem started with a small design defect in the shoulder pocket design, according to Mr. Byrne. "In some cases, the steel wire for the belts was not embedded deeply enough into the rubber during the calendering process, leading to the formation of air bubbles and hot spots," he said.

While this alone wouldn't have caused serious problems, the tires were placed on sports-utility vehicles, "large unstable vehicles that tend to roll," Mr. Byrne said.

Also, it was a problem when Ford and BFS set the recommended tire pressure at 26 psi, since many motorists didn't get their tires checked often enough and let the tires run at pressures lower than 26 psi.

Mr. Ditlow concurred with Mr. Byrne on this point. "Wherever you start with your inflation pressure, it downhill from there," he said. "If you start with 26, pretty soon you're down to 22."

Mr. Byrne went on to identify a number of factors which culminated in the Ford-Firestone situation, including:

The breakdown of the old Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. after the debacle of the Firestone 500 recall;

The purchase of Firestone by Bridgestone Corp., which gave Bridgestone the exposure in the West it desired, but also caused the clash of two very different corporate cultures;

The fitment of Firestone tires on SUVs, which Mr. Byrne described as "asinine vehicles, a hybrid of a truck and a car which often rides like a truck;" and

The insistence of Ford on lowering the recommended air pressure on the tires in order to get a softer ride.

Mr. Ditlow—whose organization sued BFS and Ford to force the recall of all Firestone ATX and Wilderness tires, not just the 15-inch tires named in the company recall—said it doesn't matter to him whether he puts his effort into regulatory action or court proceedings, as long as he can get safer vehicles on the road.

"Trial lawyers have as much fondness for the Center for Auto Safety as Ford and Firestone do," he said. "We don't like it when lawyers get money and plaintiffs get coupons."

Mr. Ditlow said the ATX and Wilderness recall, like the Firestone 500 recall before it, was a prime example of what happens when corporations try to sweep major defects under the rug.

"No one wins when you have a situation like this," he said. "Corporations lose reputation and money, and people lose their lives....We need to get it right this time. We didn't get it right after the 500."

Meanwhile, Bridgestone/Firestone is repeating one course of action with the current recall that it did with the 500, according to Mr. Byrne.

"Firestone settled most 500 cases out of court, often for more money than the plaintiffs originally thought they could get," he said. "But no one could talk about the settlement or what was going on. The company was paying to get itself off the front pages. It simply began to buy its way out of the problem."

And once again, Mr. Byrne said, BFS is striving to settle ATX and Wilderness cases out of court, with gag orders as part of the settlements. "The 500 strategy is alive and well," he said.

Nevertheless, the tire maker has suffered a great deal of damage. "The company's market share has fallen, and it will be a real problem trying to get it back, since tires are pretty much indistinguishable," Mr. Byrne said. He added that the recall's cost will be "substantially higher" than the $800 million Bridgestone currently projects.

The best way to handle a defect, Mr. Byrne concluded, is to recall the product before it has a chance to create a scandal.

"General Motors just recalled 800,000 vehicles," he said. "The wiring causes vehicles to catch fire, which I would think is a fairly big problem. But the next day it couldn't be found in the paper."

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