Firestone: What Went Wrong

What went wrong—and why?

With investigators still unsure why treads are separating on several brands of Firestone tires, it could take quite some time to get to the root of the crisis. In its wake, though, the Ford/Firestone recall is generating significant pressure for tougher tire testing and harsher enforcement.

Sue Bailey, the new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has promised to press for more money and more power for her agency, which oversees motor vehicle safety in the U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), meanwhile, has introduced a measure which would set a second-degree murder penalty for company executives knowingly marketing a defective product that results in death. The measure would carry with it prison time of up to 15 years.

"This legislation, if enacted, will certainly put (corporate) officials on notice that they cannot recklessly disregard human life for profits," Specter declared, following the September 6th hearings into the Ford/Firestone affair.

Ironically, some of the measures now being proposed first came into debate following an earlier Firestone debacle. In 1978, the company recalled 14.5 million of its Firestone 500 tires after admitting it knew they were plagued by defects. One measure—requiring companies to state the weight limit of their tires—subsequently went into effect. Other proposals—including a warning system to alert drivers when tires were under-inflated—were scuttled by the Reagan Administration, which had promised to get government off the back of American industry. (The weight limit requirement was also rescinded.)

And over the years, Congress has repeatedly voted down proposals to increase funding for NHTSA, leaving it sorely short of investigators.

Whether the latest round of proposals will go into effect is unclear, according to observers. The Firestone investigation is certainly being charged up by the fact that this is an election year. It remains to be seen if it will continue as a motivating force after November, said one senior auto industry veteran in Washington, who asked for anonymity.

An exemplary record tarnished

Even without new rules, there’s a general consensus in Detroit that in practice, the rules will be tougher. It will become far more risky—if not illegal—for an automaker to recall a product abroad and then ignore the U.S. market.

"We're looking at an industry that for the last twenty years has had an exemplary performance record," said Chuck Sinclair, a Goodyear spokesman. "With the blemish now from the (Firestone) recall, it's going to take some time to fix. More regulation isn't what's going to return consumer confidence. What's going to return that confidence is good product performance."

And that, Sinclair and others suggest, will take a mix of more stringent testing, and expedited product development programs.

Using technology rivaling NASA’s, tire technologists are making significant strides. Laser technology is now used to quickly carve prototype tires, and much of today’s testing can be done on a computer, rather than the road. This simultaneously speeds up development, and allows researchers to expand the number of variables—and potential obstacles—new tires come into contact with.

A small but growing number of vehicles are being equipped with so-called run-flat tires, which will remain functional, even in the event of a catastrophic blowout.

Today’s tires typically last at least twice as long as those on the road in the 1970s, before radials became the industry norm. Even so, the nation’s motorists wear out an incredible 276 million tires a year, "more than one per person, man, woman and child," notes Michael Blumenthal, a director of the Scrap Tire Management Council. The recalled Firestones will account for barely 2.5 percent of that total, adds Blumenthal, "basically a drop in the bucket."

But the Firestone tires will receive special treatment, with contractors hired to punch a three-inch hole in the sidewall of each tire. That’s meant to ensure they won’t be resold, inadvertently or otherwise. At that point, the Firestones will face the same fate as any worn out tire.

There’s been a move away from the traditional means of disposal, dumping used tires in landfills or tire dumps. In recent years, several of these dumps have caught fire, creating a noxious mix of smoke and potentially dangerous liquid run-off. So three alternative approaches have been developed:

  • The largest single use for old tires, says Blumenthal, is as so-called Tire-Derived Fuel, or TDF. In properly equipped burners, tires produce less pollution than coal;

  • About 30 million used tires go into civil engineering applications each year, such as road embankment fill or to line landfills;

  • Then there’s the ground rubber market. Processed into "crumb rubber," the material can be used for playground cover, laced into soil, even mixed in with asphalt for new road surfaces.

Ultimately, there’ll be little trouble disposing of the recalled Firestone tires. But overcoming the legacy left behind by the recall will be another matter entirely.

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