Ford Edges Firestone Off ’02 Explorer

Bridgestone/Firestone is not only fighting to save its reputation, but now it's having to fight its competitors to keep Ford Motor Co.'s business. Ford announced Michelin would become the majority supplier on the new Explorer and Mountaineer.

Ford said the switch was made prior to the recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires used on the two vehicles. Originally Ford had planned to simply diversify its tire suppliers for the vehicles and Michelin would have provided a little more than half of the new tires.

However, Ford is instituting a plan that will allow customers to decide if they want Michelins or Firestone tires on their vehicles. Additionally, the automaker is in talks with Goodyear to supply tires for the sport-utility vehicles.

Firestone, for its part, seems somewhat taken aback by the news, saying it planned to supply up to 70 percent of the new tires for the vehicles. However, Ford spokesperson Della DiPietro told the Detroit News that ultimately consumers would decide how many tires Firestone supplies.

"We're not deciding, nor are the tire manufacturers," she said. "This will be entirely up to our customers."

The move to allow customers to choose the brand of tire is unusual. While many times automakers will allow customers to decide how big a tire they want on their vehicle, the manufacturer generally selects the brand. The move to allow consumers to choose is merely a continuation of a plan that Ford chairman Bill Ford said the company

would follow. Several weeks back, he said would look into allow customers to select the tire brand on their vehicles.

Another Firestone probe

Just when Firestone thought it might not get any worse, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it was opening an investigation into another brand of the company's tires.

The agency has received 167 complaints about the Steeltex R4S and A/T light truck tires since Aug. 1. The complaints included reports of two deaths and 12 injuries in accidents related to blowouts. The tires are original equipment on Ford F-250 and F-350 pickup trucks, the Ford Excursion, General Motors' Suburban and G Van, which is a commercial vehicle. While the tires are original equipment, they are not standard on all of the aforementioned vehicles.

"The majority of the complaints occurred at highway speeds and allege a blowout, tread separation or other major failure," the agency said in its report.

The R4S is a mud and snow tire while the A/T is an all-terrain tire. Both are available in 15-, 16- and 16.5-inch sizes. NHTSA could not provide an estimate of how many tires were involved in the investigation.

Exec "culpability" may become law

As expected, a House Commerce subcommittee unanimously approved the legislation that makes it a crime to withhold information from NHTSA or other federal regulators about cars and trucks or automotive components that have caused death or serious injury.

The new law, if enacted, provides for a jail term of up to 15 years and a fine of $100,000 for executive of the offending companies. A similar bill is working its way through the Senate. That bill would also make it a crime to knowingly introduce a defective product to the public. It was passed by the Senate's Commerce subcommittee nearly two weeks ago.

Critics of the House bill say that auto executives will be less likely to come forward and testify about possible problems if they are at risk for criminal prosecution. Members of NHTSA testified before a joint subcommittee that they have relied on executives coming forward to resolve many recall issues.

At this point, NHTSA can impose civil penalties for these transgressions, but has not been able to pursue criminal prosecution. A version of the House bill has raised the maximum fine NHTSA can levy against a company from $925,000 to $15 million.

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