Ford Motor Co. has gone on the offensive in its running battle with Bridgestone/Firestone. On June 14 Ford released new data that they claim shows that the tires, not the design of the Ford Explorer, are at the root of accidents that have resulted in 174 deaths and 700 injuries.
In addition, the automaker also attacked the credibility of a Venezuelan study that has been used to support Bridgestone/Firestone’s argument that the Explorer is rollover-prone, and warned the tiremaker could become the target of a multi-billion lawsuit.
"The issue of whether or not we will recover, seek to recover, any money from Firestone as a result of this will be something that we'll be paying more attention to and considering more deeply in the coming few weeks," Richard Parry-Jones, Ford vice president for research and development, told analysts during a briefing on the automaker's plans to recall more than 13 million tires made by Bridgestone/Firestone.
Bridgestone/Firestone, meanwhile, fired back that it had no intention of helping Ford pay for the recall, which Parry-Jones said the Ford hopes to complete by the end of the year. "Our tires are safe. We don't think the replacement program is necessary based on the data. It's a Ford program, not a Firestone program," a Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman told the Reuters news service.
Ford launched its new attacks on Bridgestone/Firestone on the eve of a Congressional hearing on the tire controversy that is expected to put new dings into the reputations of both companies. "It is mad. Each company is after each other,” said Gerald Meyers, a former chairman at American Motors who now teaches crisis management at the University of Michigan. "Firestone is solely to blame for the PR war and Ford has fallen into their trap," Meyers added.
Part of Ford's strategy apparently is to provide the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ample grounds for ordering a recall of the 15-, 16- and 17-inch Firestone Wilderness AT tires Ford considers defective. A recall ordered by NHTSA would bolster Ford's case against Firestone; whether the effort will pay dividends is an open question.
Parry-Jones presented analysts and reporters with new data that underscored the shortcomings of Firestone's Wilderness tires. Between 1995 and 1997, Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles were equipped with equal numbers of Firestone and Goodyear tires as original equipment, Parry-Jones said. The actual data indicates there were 1,183 tread separations associated with the 2.9 million Firestone tires, and just two with an equal number of Goodyear tires, Parry-Jones said.
Even if the Explorer design was flawed - which Ford isn't prepared to concede - the data plot clearly indicates the SUV's problems were caused by the tires, not the vehicle, one Ford official noted after the briefings for analysts and reporters.
Ford also said the research indicates the disparity in performance was due to differences in tire construction despite using the same specifications as set out by the automaker. The strength of the bond between steel belts, or the ''peel strength,'' was lower in Firestone tires compared to Goodyear tires and other brands tested, Parry-Jones said.
"When we specify a tire, we specify certain clear performance criteria. But we also have a general expectation that the tire manufacturer will use their design and manufacturing expertise and knowledge to supply us with tires that meet industry standards with regard to their durability and their robustness," Parry-Jones said. "In this particular case, that clearly has not been done," he added. Bridgestone/Firestone dispute Ford's interpretation of the data, noting that it included thousands of flawed tires that the tiremaker voluntarily recalled last summer. Ford's data also doesn't explain why the Explorers are more likely to roll over if a tire fails than other SUVs. ''When the tread separates on a tire, the driver should be able to pull over, not roll over,'' a Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman said.
Ford also attacked the credibility of reports from Venezuela, implicating the Explorer in 51 rollover accidents. Jason Vines, Ford's vice president of communications, said Ford's own investigation indicates the Explorer is not the problem in Venezuela. Ford was able to reinvestigate more than half the accidents cited by the Venezuelan government. Several of the accidents involved other Ford vehicles such as the Fiesta subcompact or the Ford Ranger pickup and a half-dozen others didn't even involve rollovers, Vines said. In two case, vehicles were double-counted and in other cases the vehicles were involved in rollover accidents after being reported stolen by their owners. "The bottom line is this famous list of 51 alleged Explorer accidents is, at best, deeply flawed," said Vines,
Bridgestone/Firestone has cited the Venezuelan report in its attacks on Ford.