By STEPHEN POWER and CLARE ANSBERRY
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. admitted it made "bad tires" that it has now
recalled and said it has narrowed the focus of its investigation of the tire
failures to potential design and manufacturing problems.
Firestone in the past has indicated that
problems with its recalled tires reflected external
factors, such as driving conditions and care and
maintenance. But a Firestone executive,
testifying Tuesday at a Senate Commerce
Committee hearing into the recall, said the company is now looking at
its own processes and specifications to determine the root cause of the
"We believe we have narrowed the focus and
believe the solution may lie in two areas -- the
unique design specification of the 235/75/R15
[Wilderness AT tire] combined with variations in
the manufacturing process at the Decatur [Ill.]
plant," said John Lampe, Firestone's executive
The company, a unit of Japan's Bridgestone
Corp., last month launched a recall of 6.5 million tires that have possibly
been linked to more than 1,400 accidents and 88 deaths in the U.S.
over the past decade. Most of the tires were mounted on Ford Motor
Co.'s Explorer sport-utility vehicle.
Firestone also announced it was tapping a relatively unknown university
professor to help investigate the causes of the separations. Sanjay
Govindjee, 36 years old, an associate professor in the Department of
Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California,
Berkeley, said Firestone officials called him last week to help look into
the causes of the tire failures. At this point, he says the scope of his
powers and autonomy are unclear, but that he expects to meet with
Firestone executives later this week or next week to discuss details.
Mr. Lampe didn't elaborate on the company's theories Tuesday, and
said Firestone takes "full responsibility" for problems that led to the tire
recall. But he added that the tires are "only part of the overall safety
problem" and questioned whether lower inflation levels recommended by
Ford might have made its popular sport-utility vehicles more likely to roll
over, resulting in deaths or serious injuries.
Meanwhile, Ford Chief Executive Officer Jacques Nasser, also testifying
yesterday, reiterated his defense of Ford's safety record and called the
problems that led to the recall "a Firestone tire issue." Mr. Nasser
accused Bridgestone/Firestone of withholding data that indicated a
"significant pattern" of tread separation as early as 1998.
The new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Sue
Bailey, told lawmakers the agency thinks the accidents stem from "a tire
problem. But as is part of our investigation we will also explore the
possibility" that flaws with the vehicles contributed to accidents, she
Dr. Bailey and Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said the agency
would redirect $1.8 million from other NHTSA programs to the Firestone
investigation, in hopes of finishing the probe within six months.
Lawmakers, without apportioning blame, criticized both companies for
not bringing the matter to U.S. customers sooner.
"What you and I ... have here is a situation where Ford says we ought
to recall the Firestone tires and Firestone says we ought to recall the
Ford cars or Explorers," said Sen. Ernest Hollings (D., S.C.). "It's like
tying two cats by the tails and throwing them over the clothesline and
letting them claw each other."
Poll of Customers
A poll commissioned by The Wall Street Journal suggests Firestone is
suffering more with customers than Ford as a result of the recall. The
poll, conducted Sept. 7-11 on the Internet by Harris Interactive, found
that while 25% of 814 people polled said it is extremely or very likely the
tire recall will affect their decision to buy a Ford product, 67% said the
recall would be very likely to affect their decision to buy a Firestone
product. Of those polled, 60% said the recall wasn't broad enough.
Neither company fared well on the question of whether they acted in a
timely and responsible way in recalling the tires. Only 14% agreed that
Firestone's actions were timely and responsible; 26% agreed that Ford
had acted responsibly.
Phil Pacsi, Firestone's director of
consumer tires brand marketing, says
he is not surprised by the results, given
the amount of exposure given to the
tire problems. "Our goal, after we get
this behind us, is to change consumer
perception of what Firestone is," he
There are several factors that Firestone
is expected to consider regarding the
manufacturing process at the Decatur
plant. One is the age of the plant itself
and the equipment being used there.
The plant was built in 1942 by the U.S.
government to house Decatur Signal
Depot, which made and stored
telecommunications for the Armed
Forces and closed in 1961. Firestone purchased the plant in 1962 and
began producing bias tires in 1963.
That particular tire and the process involved is much more forgiving
than the making of steel-belted tires such as the recalled Wilderness,
ATX, and ATX II tires. The reason is that steel belts are vulnerable to
moisture and humidity, which can cause corrosion and thus affect the
ability of the steel belts to adhere to the rubber. Air conditioning, which
can reduce the humidity, was overhauled about two years ago in
Decatur but is not installed throughout the plant.
Another issue will be the age and condition of the equipment at that
plant. Huge Banbury blenders mix raw materials under tremendous heat
and pressure. Calendar machines have huge rollers that press the parts
of the steel belt together. If the equipment is old it could have an
impact on how effective the bond is between the belts. Firestone says it
constantly updates its plants, but didn't have any specifics on
improvements at Decatur.
"An area we are looking at is the belts. The tread separation is
happening between the belts. That is an area we are looking into," said
Firestone's Mr. Pacsi.
Another area that is expected to be reviewed is the vulcanization
process, which is essentially applying heat and pressure to make all the
various pieces come together into one tire. Too little heat leads to tread
separation because the pieces don't adhere thoroughly. Too much heat
may lead to harder rubber with less elasticity.
Ford doesn't set design specifications, but gives Firestone certain
performance criteria that it must meet. Firestone then drafts the
particular specifications that are needed to meet those performance
The new Firestone investigator, Mr. Govindjee, a civil and mechanical
engineer, said that he expects to try to determine what aspects in the
design of the tire caused it to "deform" under a heavy weight load. Mr.
Govindjee said he has a particular expertise in the mechanics of rubber
and what happens to rubber when too much weight pressure is applied
and also how rubber reacts when it is pulled out of its molded shape.
Mr. Govindjee also expects to analyze Firestone data to examine the
causes of the tread peels and the limitations of the rubber and other
Mr. Govindjee said that this would be the first time that he has ever
handled an investigation and has never testified as a company-paid
independent expert. Mr. Govindjee said that he has worked as a
consultant and researcher for the Department of Energy, and Goodyear
Tire & Rubber Co. He said his work with Goodyear and other tire
companies involved proprietary product research and "things that they
were curious about." He would not elaborate.
-- Robert Guy Matthews contributed to this article.