Firestone Asks Feds for Study

TCC's award-winning Firestone coverage

In what some observers are calling the start of a "scorched earth," "all-out war" Firestone is calling for a federal safety investigation of the country's most popular sport-utility vehicle, the Ford Explorer.

The tire manufacturer's Chief Executive Officer made the request Thursday during a meeting with Secretary Norman Mineta, head of the U.S. Transportation Dept., and officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Firestone backed up its call with the results of a study that Lampe said "shows a serious safety defect" with certain models of the Explorer.

In a separate development, officials with Bridgestone/Firestone told they are retooling some of their Firestone plants to produce Bridgestone-branded tires, a move that could help pick up some of the slack from what is likely to be a slump in Firestone sales.

Firestone's call for an investigation came as the latest shot the tiremaker has taken in recent weeks against Ford Motor Co., long one of its largest customers. On May 21, Firestone announced it would no longer sell tires to Ford. That was a pre-emptive move aimed at gaining the upper hand when Ford, a day later, announced the recall of 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires.

Firestone is refusing to participate in the latest recall, which Ford expects will cost it $2 billion after taxes.

Warning signals

Last Summer, Ford recalled 6.5 million of the same brand of tires, after reports linked as many as 170 deaths in the U.S., and scores more abroad, to the Wilderness AT. Apparent design and manufacturing defects resulted in an unusually high number of cases in which the tires' tread separated from the rest of the tire, resulting in catastrophic loss of control.

The latest recall was triggered by what Ford CEO Jacques Nasser described as "warning signals" that similar problems might occur albeit less frequently with the additional 13 million Firestones.

Ford has repeatedly blamed Firestone for the problems leading to the two recalls. Now, it appears, the tiremaker is trying to shift the burden to its former customer.

The study was conducted last month by Dr. Dennis Guenther, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at The Ohio State University. It focused on three specific models of the Explorer, the 1996 Ford Explorer four-door 4X2, the 2000 Ford Explorer four-door 4X2. Two vehicles used for comparison purposes were the 2001 Jeep Cherokee four-door 4X2, and the 1996 Chevrolet Blazer four-door 4X2.

A spokesperson for Bridgestone/Firestone indicated that the tiremaker had helped fund the new study.

Under certain emergency circumstances, Guenther said, the study found the Explorer's handling can be imprecise and unpredictable. "This must be regarded as a highway safety defect within the meaning of NHTSA's charter."

A smokescreen?

Using words like "smokescreen," Ford officials continued to dismiss any claims that the Explorer was dangerous, or that it bore even some of the blame for the problems that led to the two Firestone recalls.

During Ford's May 22nd news conference, John Rintamaki, the automaker's North American chief of staff, asserted, "Clearly the tire was a major factor" in accidents caused by tread separation. Rintamaki noted that between 1997 and 2000, Ford used 2.9 million Goodyear tires on the Explorer, and an equal number of Wilderness ATs. During that time, there were 1183 reports of tread separation with Firestones, but only two with Goodyear's tires.

Firestone has "apparently decided to follow a scorched earth policy," a veteran industry executive said, adding that he could not imagine this strategy paying off for Firestone, unless the company is simply seeking vengeance. That may not be all that far from the truth.

Consider the approach Bridgestone-Firestone chose to take, presenting its findings to investigators, rather than filing a formal petition with the NHTSA. That alternative would have forced NHTSA to make a decision on whether to investigate. Instead, by simply showing the test results to investigators, the tiremaker's strategy appears to be aimed at casting doubt on the Explorer, and Ford's long-held position that the tire failures leading to Explorer rollovers were always a tire issue and not vehicle related.

"We have always maintained that you can't look at the tires without looking at the vehicle. The two operate as a system," said Firestone's Lampe. But both Congress and NHTSA have been focused up to this point entirely on the tires.

The tire company las long maintained that Ford's recommended tire pressure of between 26 pounds and 30 pounds per square inch was lower than what Firestone advised, and may have contributed to the high rate of failure. Flying in the face of that argument, though, is the fact that, as noted, the Goodyear tires didn't fail--even though they were rated for the same pressure and used on the same vehicles.

An alternate agenda?

In fact, the test results put forth by B-F, have nothing to do with suggesting that the Ford Explorer's design contributed to the fact that Firestone tires have failed in such large numbers. Firestone still has no definitive answer for that. The tiremaker is trying to use evidence of one design defect to cast doubts on the rest of the vehicle and give credence to critics who have charged that the Explorer's suspension is deficient, and contributed to tire failure and rollover.

And this could be Ford's weak point. Observers caution that Ford can ill afford even the slightest tainting of its popular SUV, which reportedly accounts for about 20% of its global profits. Faced with increased competition, a soft American motor vehicle market, and perhaps by consumer concerns, Explorer sales were off 22.3 percent during the first four months of 2001.

By "firing" Ford, Firestone loses about 5% of its total business. It's likely to take some time to tell whether the latest fracas will result in a decline in Firestone's sizable aftermarket sales, as well. But since the second Ford recall was announced, two other carmakers have announced plans to cut back on the number of Firestones they use in their assembly plants.

That news was not quite as bad as it might seem, since both General Motors Corp. and Nissan Motor Corp. said they will switch from Firestones to tires sold under the Bridgestone name. That's the higher-rated and more expensive of the Japanese tiremaker's various brands.

Bridgestone/Firestone officials say they will launch a campaign to rebuild their Firestone brand, though they concede volumes are likely to fall in the coming months. But they hope Bridgestone will take up some of that slack. To be prepared for the shift in demand, "some (Firestone) factories are now starting to produce Bridgestones," noted Shu Ishibashi, an Executive Vice President with Bridgestone/Firestone Corp., and President of its U.S. Consumer Tire Group. That includes facilities in North and South Carolina, and in Canada.

Asked if further production shifts could occur, Ishibashi said "that depends on the situation."

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