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Ford, Firestone Battle over Tire Recall

Reversing his company's public position, Ford CEO Jac Nasser said on Aug. 16 that "spring is unacceptable" for replacing faulty Firestone tires on Ford Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers. Monday, Nasser announced the temporary shutdown of three light-truck plants, so that 70,000 tires from the plants can be used as replacements in the recall.

Firestone has said there is a shortage of replacement tires due to the overwhelming demand of customers wanting them swapped immediately. Ever conscious of the public's perception of his products and company, Nasser told USA Today that other options might be explored to assuage Ford owners.

Those options included: providing rental cars; using tires designated for new vehicles even if it means delays in getting those units out to dealers; and using outlets other than the 2900 Ford dealers and nearly 10,000 Firestone dealers currently designated to do the job.

Shutting down the plants, in St. Paul, Minnesota; Hazelwood, Missouri; and Edison, New Jersey, will cut an estimated 25,000 vehicles (about 15,000 Ranger pickups and 10,000 Explorer and Mountaineer sport-utility vehicles) from Ford’s production schedule. All 6000 employees at the plants will be paid during the down time. The plants will be shut down from August 28 to September 8.

Nasser’s announcement is a worthy sacrifice to save Ford’s image. Some polls conducted in the past week have shown decreased consumer confidence in Ford, as safety and consumer groups, and the media, asked if Ford had done enough.

Competing tiremakers have been scrambling to increase production to compensate for the approximately 6.5 million Firestone tires that must be replaced. Ford anticipates that by mid-September the tire industry will be able to adequately supply replacement tires.

The two companies are trying to replace 15-inch ATX and ATX II tires as well as Wilderness AT tires. Adding to the frenzy are the assertions that Firestone employees involved in the manufacture of the tires were incompetent.

Never to be left out of the picture, many government officials are beginning to call for additional hearings on the subject. Former presidential candidate and current U.S. Senator John McCain sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater for the department to intensify its efforts to pressure the companies to abandon a phased program for replacing the tires.

"While I appreciate the efforts of Bridgestone/Firestone to address a potentially life-threatening safety matter, I have serious doubts that consumers in all states will be adequately protected using this type of phased recall," he said in the letter. "I am sure you agree that all consumers should be equally protected. I urge you to work with Bridgestone/Firestone to consider utilizing other appropriate brands of tires as replacements which would allow the manufacturer to expand the number of states involved in the recall."

Congress weighs in?

McCain, who heads up the Senate's Commerce Committee and is also on the Transportation Committee, is contemplating holding hearings on the issue. Additionally, Ford lobbyists are continuing efforts to make sure politicians in Washington are apprised of the efforts of the automaker.

"We are in the preliminary phases of what may become a full blown investigation,'' Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin, (R, La.), the chairman of the House subcommittee on consumer protection, said Thursday. "We hope to make a determination in the very near future on when to hold hearings."

Consumers are beginning to send a message to Ford regarding the use of Firestone tires on its hot-selling Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer as visitors to dealer showrooms are less than normal for this time of year. However, after initially saying that sales had dipped slightly due to the problem, Ford recanted the statement. Some analysts predict the action could cost Ford between $75 million and $100 million by the time it's said and done. The plant closure solution may come too late to erase consumers’ negative impressions on Ford’s involvement in the recall.

However, Ford is stepping up its efforts to allay fears about the tires, especially since the all-new Explorer is beginning to roll out for the 2002 model year, with a completely redesigned Firestone tire. In spite of the current problem, Ford spokesperson Ken Zino said the company would not drop Firestone as a supplier.

General Motors, Subaru, Nissan and Toyota also use the tires on their vehicles. Public Citizen, a Washington D.C. watchdog group, alleges that 30 deaths have occurred in Ford vehicles using the Firestone tires. It has established a toll-free phone number to assist vehicle owners in finding the nearest dealer. The number is 800-465-1904.

Most recently, the Center for Automotive Safety, the agency behind Ford’s nightmarish 1970s Ford Pinto "fireball recall," has requested a recall of 12 million additional Firestone tires that share a common design and/or manufacturing process.

Ford voluntarily replaced the tires on vehicles in several warm-weather countries, including Venezuela, Ecuador, Thailand, Malaysia, Colombia and Saudi Arabia, after problems surfaced. No clear policy was established for the United States prior to the investigation by NHTSA.

The problems associated with the separation are two-fold: The tire ruptures and results in a loss of vehicle control or the tread separates and the tire remains inflated, but the tread wraps around the axle which also results in a loss of control of the vehicle. Most often the failures occur with vehicles traveling between 55 and 75 mph, but there have been reports of problems at speeds as low as 20 mph, according to NHTSA records.

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