Let's assume that somebody, somewhere, knows the truth about who's really to blame for the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire debacle. There are only three options, of course: either Ford, or Firestone, or both. (No, an act of God does not cover 203 people dead and over 700 injured in separate crashes.)
Ford says Firestone's to blame, of course, and Firestone says Ford. What else did you expect? And now, it looks like the public is coming to the conclusion that the rational answer can only be both.
I was surprised several months back when Ford announced that there'd been only a 20-percent drop in sales of the Explorer (Ed’s note — Explorer sales increased slightly in June). That didn't make sense to me. True, the Explorer was one of the best-selling vehicles in the country. True, it had built a reputation for value and quality. But here it was making daily headlines for its ability to tip over — fatally — and four out of five prospective buyers were still going ahead and buying it, as though there weren't several choices on the market?
Either the SUV-buying public was still more gullible than Joe Isuzu had ever imagined — and we do have to remember H.L. Mencken's famed aphorism: "Nobody ever went broke under-estimating the intelligence of the American public" — or the figures were wrong.
Whichever, it now looks as though reality has caught up with both Ford and Firestone. A June consumer survey done for Automotive News showed a hefty 43 percent saying that Ford's level of honesty was poor (and 50 percent saying the same about Firestone). More important, and even more clearly, the vast majority declared a pox on both their houses: three-quarters (74 percent) blamed the rollovers on a combination of faulty Explorer design and faulty Firestone tires.
By the time you add up the cost of recalling tens of millions of tires and settling lawsuits brought against the company, Ford is already approaching a four-billion-dollar bill for the whole affair. But that's only the beginning. The damage to Ford's reputation for quality — not so long ago the highest among domestic automakers — is bound to carry over into sales of other Ford models, no matter what tires they use.
That's not only the cost of a faulty tire or a faulty suspension. That's the cost of ignoring all earlier signs that something was wrong — of out-of-court settlements, of blanket denials, of a let's-try-to-tough-it-through attitude that never had a chance of working against dead college students and paralyzed mothers.
I have no idea whether Ford or Firestone is more to blame for the rollover debacle. But as both companies look at their balance sheets diving into the red, the public is making one thing crystal clear: there can be no profit without safety. Until that doesn't even need to be stated any more, Ford and Firestone's troubles will continue.