By TIMOTHY AEPPEL, ROBERT L. SIMISON, CLARE ANSBERRY and
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
A FLOOD OF INFORMATION has been released since the Aug. 9 recall
of 6.5 million Firestone tires linked to accidents, most of them involving
Ford Motor Co.'s Explorer sport-utility vehicle.
Congressional investigators, plaintiffs attorneys,
tire experts and the companies involved have
weighed in. Ford and Firestone, a unit of Japan's
Bridgestone Corp., each have teams working
around the clock to pinpoint the cause.
But still, there are few clear answers as to why some Firestone tires are
coming apart on the road, causing deadly blow-outs and rollovers. Here
is a recap of what is known at this point, and what remains to be
Why are the treads peeling off these tires?
The problem is that the two steel belts inside the tires are separating.
The belts are glued together, one on top of the other. When they come
apart the upper steel belt can suddenly pop loose, taking the entire
tread with it. The problem appears to indicate that the glue is not
strong enough. Experts think that either the quality of the raw
materials used to make the glue, which is a rubber compound, isn't high
enough or the raw materials aren't sufficiently mixed.
The belts could also pop apart if corrosion is present on the steel wires
that are woven together to form the belt. Corrosion comes from
moisture, which could come from humidity in the tire factory.
The belts could also pop apart if
the tire isn't properly cured. The
curing, or vulcanization, process
involves pressing the pieces of the
raw tire together inside a heated
mold. If the heat isn't sufficiently
high the pieces may not fuse. If
the heat is too great the pieces
could be overcooked and turn
Why are these particular tires
To the average consumer tires may look alike. Essentially, all have the
same ingredients and are made by similar machines. Yet each type of
tire has a slightly different proportion of ingredients. For example, one
tire might have more silica, which makes it roll better and gives better
Moreover, the tires at issue may not have been built to meet the
demands of today's SUV and light truck drivers. People are driving
faster and their vehicles often are packed with bikes, kids and gear. High
speed and weight make tires run hotter, which can melt bonds within
the tires, especially if the bonds aren't strong enough to begin with.
Tire treads, particularly those used on SUVs, are more rugged and
don't grow bald as fast as they did years ago. Drivers may have no idea
the insides are falling apart.
The issues of speed and heat have been raised in South America, where
Explorers equipped with 15-inch Firestone tires are supposed to be able
to handle speeds of up to 106 miles per hour, according to Ford
documents. But the tire design used on those Explorers was only
deemed safe when drivers were traveling at 100 mph for a short time at
the inflation -- 28 pounds per square inch -- that Ford recommended,
according to the documents. In some countries people drive at those
speeds for a long period of time.
Who is at fault in this mess?
Ford contends the problem lies entirely with Bridgestone/Firestone's
tires. The auto maker bases this conclusion on two bodies of evidence.
One is Ford's own analysis of Bridgestone/Firestone warranty claims
covering all models of tires on all vehicles over 10 years. That indicates
that the tread separation complaints involve only 15-inch Firestone ATX
and ATX II tires and Wilderness AT tires produced at Firestone's
Decatur, Ill., plant. The other evidence is the record of 500,000
Explorers made in the mid-1990s that were equipped with 2.3 million
tires produced to the same specifications by Goodyear Tire & Rubber
Co. Ford and Goodyear say there have been no reports of accidents or
fatalities linked to similar failures of those tires. Ford has a team of
experts searching for an engineering explanation for why the Firestone
tires failed, and it has hired independent tire laboratories to assist them.
Still, Ford acknowledges it failed to detect a problem soon enough.
For the first time, Firestone admitted this week that it made bad tires
and that it had manufacturing problems at its plant in Decatur. But it
also believes the design of the Explorer and Ford's specifications for the
tires share responsibility. It notes that other vehicles with these tires
haven't experienced the same fatal rollover rate as Explorers. In
addition, Firestone says that tire failures are involved in fewer than 10%
of Explorer rollovers, leading the tire maker to conclude the problem is
linked to the vehicle and not just the tire. Moreover, it notes that an
analysis of 32 cases of possible tread separation involving Explorers and
the similar Mercury Mountainer in the U.S. showed that 10 involved
Why is tire pressure an issue?
Underinflated tires can get hot faster. Without enough air to hold the
tires shape, the tire walls can flex more than they are made to. Flexing
creates heat, which can make the tire separate. It is worse in hot
climates. About 80% of the Firestone tread separations took place in
four hot-climate states.
Firestone said the tires should be
inflated to a pressure of 30 pounds
per square inch, but it never made an
issue of Ford recommending the tires
be inflated to 26 pounds -- until the
recall. Now Firestone is saying the
26-pound level is one of the reasons
the tires are coming apart.
Ford doesn't think tire pressure is as
much an issue as everyone is making
it out to be and that there isn't much
difference between 26 and 30
pounds. Citing Goodyear as an
authority, Ford further maintains that
low pressure shouldn't start to
generate enough heat to cause tread
separation until the pressure falls to
the low teens. And Ford points to the
Goodyear tires it put on Explorers in
the mid-1990s, for which it
recommended a pressure of 26
pounds. Goodyear says it had four
claims for tread separations on tires it
supplied to Explorers, but none of
those resulted in accidents or injuries.
Still, Ford now says tires should be
inflated to 26 to 30 pounds.
Are all steel-belted tires prone to
To some degree. Steel-belted tires were introduced in the U.S. in the
late 1960s. They were a huge breakthrough because they are stronger,
last longer and give better gas mileage. But getting steel to stick to
rubber is like mixing oil and water. For decades, the world's tire makers
have been coming up with new patents that change the way the belts
are constructed, and the way they are stuck together. Firestone isn't
the only one with tread separation complaints. Ford is also investigating
reports of tread separations in Saudi Arabia on tires made by
Germany's Continental AG. And Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. faces dozens
of lawsuits involving claims of tread separations.
Is there a problem with the Explorer?
Although a number of theories have been floated, no data have
emerged to signal a safety defect in the vehicle itself. Ford points out
that the vehicle's suspension is conventional for SUVs and other light
trucks. Ford contends that the performance specifications set for the
tires are appropriate for the vehicle's weight and the likely load it carries.
It is true that complaints filed with NHTSA seem to indicate a
disproportionate number of tread separations and rollover accidents
involving the Explorer, compared with other SUVs equipped with the
same tires. But Ford argues that while all of its SUVs involved in such
accidents were equipped with the suspect tires, only a few rival vehicles
had the same tires, making the comparison invalid. "In the absence of a
finding of a root cause," says Ford spokesman Ken Zeno, "all these
allegations [of a defect in the Explorer] are pure speculation."
Since the 1995 model year, the Explorer has earned four-star ratings in
frontal crash tests conducted by NHTSA, meaning driver and passenger
would face only a 11% to 20% chance of serious injury. In side-impact
tests for the 1999 and 2000 model years, the only ones so tested by
NHTSA, the vehicle scored five stars, meaning a 5% or less chance of
However, it is widely acknowledged that SUVs are inherently less stable
in accidents than passenger cars because of their higher center of
gravity. NHTSA was set to release its first stability ratings for vehicles
this year, but the project was blocked by the Senate. In rollover
accidents, Ford contends that government fatality reports indicate the
Explorer posts a lower death rate than similar SUVs.
Are other SUVs having the problem?
No similar pattern affecting rival SUVs has emerged, and other auto
makers don't have an explanation. Ford contends that this is further
evidence of a tire problem. "The Explorer has the bad tires," says Mr.
Zino, the Ford spokesman. Before the tire debacle, Ford already had
taken steps to lower the center of gravity of the next-generation
Explorer, which is due in January.
Who knew what when?
Firestone began facing lawsuits in the early 1990s involving tread
separations. There were other warning signs: Since October 1997,
Firestone has reimbursed State Farm Insurance for damages sustained
when treads of the tires now subject to the recall separated.
Ford's Venezuela operation began receiving reports of tire problems as
early as 1997, and its Middle East units started receiving such reports
as early as 1998. Ford says it repeatedly sent failed tires from both
markets to Bridgestone/Firestone for analysis and was assured that the
tread separation reflected abuse of the tires or underinflation.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, Ford officials say it was common for
Explorers to be used for "dune-buggying" in the desert. To improve
traction on sand, drivers would deflate the tires to 10 to 12 pounds per
square inch. After they returned to the highway, the drivers wouldn't
always re-inflate the tires and would drive at 100 miles an hour or more
for an hour or more. So Firestone's explanation about tire pressure
being at issue seems to be valid. But to keep customers in Saudi Arabia
happy, Ford replaced failing Firestone tires on Explorers with Goodyear
In the U.S., at least eight months before the recall Firestone began
compiling documents showing a sharp jump in damage and injury claims
involved the Firestone tires in the late 1990s. The documents tracked
an increasing number of tread separation claims, their cost, what tires
were affected and which factories were producing the most tires with
Firestone says it doesn't customarily use such claims when assessing
product quality, in part because the numbers of claims is so low
compared with the number of tires made. Besides, it expected that
claims would increase because these tires were intended for SUVs and
light trucks and therefore would be operated in a harsher environment
than a typical passenger tire. In addition, SUVs are more inclined to roll
over. So Firestone expected some claims to be related to the vehicle
characteristics, and not the tire. The company now admits that was a
mistake and says it wishes it would have looked at claims more closely
as an indication of a safety problem.
In February, KHOU television in Houston aired a piece on tread
separations, which prompted a flurry of complaints to the National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency launched its
investigation in May, the same month, the agency says, it learned
during an unrelated meeting with Ford executives that the company was
replacing Firestone tires on some of its vehicles overseas. Critics say the
agency should have moved earlier to require disclosure of overseas
recalls and replacement programs and monitored lawsuits involving the
tire maker and Ford.
What is the federal government doing to make sure these
accidents don't continue to happen?
NHTSA has recommended that Firestone recall an additional 1.4 million
tires and may require the company to do so, if it determines there are
safety defects with them. Meanwhile, it has issued a "consumer
advisory" suggesting that consumers replace these tires as well, and
Firestone has agreed to reimburse owners.
The agency also wants Congress to increase its budget and provide new
enforcement tools, such as a requirement that manufacturers report
information about potential defects in vehicles or equipment overseas, if
that information pertains to vehicles or equipment sold in the U.S. In
recent years, the agency has not required manufacturers to disclose
overseas recalls, a policy that allowed Ford to quietly replace Firestone
tires on vehicles abroad over the past year without attracting federal
scrutiny. Finally, the agency has vowed to update its tire standards,
which date to the 1960s.
Can Firestone resurrect its brand, or is it dead?
Perhaps -- but it is going to cost a fortune. It has decided to drop the
name Wilderness, referring to one of two lines of the recalled tires.
Firestone is considering the name Terra Hawk as a replacement.
Another possibility is to let Firestone fade and push the Bridgestone
name with massive marketing and studies that unequivocally show that
these tires are safe and made with the highest-quality materials and
have gone through demanding performance tests. That is going to cost
the company money, not just in marketing but in production.
In a poll conducted Sept. 7-11 by Harris Interactive for The Wall Street
Journal, 67% of the 814 respondents said the recall would very likely
affect their decision to buy a Firestone product. The company says it
isn't surprised by its poor image, given the publicity about its woes, but
adds that it is determined to change that perception after the recall is
concluded. It has hired a new public relations firm -- Ketchum, a unit of
New York-based Omnicom Group Inc. -- to help keep the Firestone
If you have a Ford Explorer with the recalled tires, what should
Take your car to an authorized Firestone or Ford dealer and asked that
they be replaced. Make sure the replacement tires are the right type for
an Explorer -- Goodyear put out a notice a few weeks ago cautioning
consumers not to put a tire designed for passenger cars on an SUV.
Request a refund form from the dealer (or get one off the Web at
www.firestonetire.com), attach your receipt and mail it in for a $100
reimbursement per tire.
Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford are replacing 70,000 to 90,000 tires a
day. But they don't expect the recall to be completed until late
November. About 2.2 million of the 6.5 recalled million tires have been
replaced. Some dealers are out of replacement tires. Your best bet is to
call stores until you find them. Meanwhile, check your air pressure at a
gas station or tire store, don't take extended trips at high speeds and
make sure to wear your seatbelt.
If you have tires that aren't included in the recall, but are mentioned
NHTSA's consumer advisory, go to an authorized dealer for a free
inspection. You can get them replaced and Firestone will reimburse you
for up to $140 a tire, providing you have your receipt and mail in a