The Firestone and Ford tire controversy was a period of unusually high tire failures on some Ford vehicles.
In May 2000, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) contacted Ford and Firestone about the high incidence of tire failure on Ford Explorers, Mercury Mountaineers, and Mazda Navajos fitted with Firestone tires. Ford investigated and found that several models of 15" Firestone tires (ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT) had very high failure rates, especially those made at Firestone's Decatur, Illinois plant. This was one of the leading factors to the closing of the Decatur plant.
Joan Claybrook, who was the president of the public advocacy group Public Citizen and previously an Administrator of the NHTSA, stated before the Transportation Subcommittee United States Senate Committee on Appropriations on September 6, 2000, that, "there was a documented coverup by Ford and Firestone of the 500 defect". Also Clarence Ditlow; Executive Director for the Centre for Auto Safety in his statement before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in Washington DC, September 20, 2000 stated "Emerging Information shows that both Ford and Firestone had early knowledge of tread separation in Firestone Tires fitted to Ford Explorer vehicles but at no point informed the NHTSA of their findings".
The Ford Explorer was first offered for sale in March 1990. Ford internal documents show the company engineers recommended changes to the vehicle design after it rolled over in company tests prior to introduction, but other than a few minor changes, the suspension and track width were not changed. Instead, Ford, which sets the specifications for the manufacture of its tires, decided to remove air from the tires, lowering the recommended psi to 26. The maximum pressure stamped into the sidewall of the tire was 35psi; however tires should only be inflated to the pressure listed by the vehicle's manufacturer.
The failures all involved tread separation—the tread peeling off followed often by tire disintegration. If that happened, and the vehicle was running at speed, there was a high likelihood of the vehicle leaving the road and rolling over. Many rollovers cause serious injury and even death; it has been estimated that over 250 deaths and more than 3,000 serious injuries resulted from these failures, with not all occurring on Ford Motor Company vehicles. It is estimated that 119 of the 250 deaths resulted from a crash with a Ford Motor Company vehicle .
Ford and Firestone have both blamed the other for the failures, which has led to the severing of relations between the two companies. Firestone has claimed that they have found no faults in design nor manufacture, and that failures have been caused by Ford's recommended tire pressure being too low and the Explorer's design. Ford, meanwhile, point out that Goodyear tires to the same specification have a spotless safety record when installed on the Explorer, although an extra liner was included into the Goodyear design after recommendations to that effect were made to Ford. Firestone included an extra liner in its product and this was then also used to replace tires on Ford Explorers.
Many outside observers tend towards blaming both parties; Firestone's tires being prone to tread separation and failure, and the SUVs being especially prone to rolling over if a tire fails at speed compared to other vehicles. A subsequent NHTSA investigation of real world accident data showed that the SUVs in question were no more likely to roll over than any other SUV, after a tread separation.
A product recall was announced, allowing Explorer owners (and owners of its stablemates) to change the affected tires for others. Many of the recalled tires had been manufactured during a period of strike at Firestone.
A large number of lawsuits have been filed against both Ford and Firestone, some unsuccessful, some settled out of court, and a few successful. Lawyers for the plaintiffs have argued that both Ford and Firestone knew of the dangers but did nothing, and that specifically Ford knew that the Explorer was highly prone to rollovers. Ford denies these allegations.
Car and Driver magazine tested a first-generation Explorer with a built-in rollcage and a special device that would flatten the tire at the push of a button. While driven by professionals on a closed track, the Explorer did not flip in any of the numerous tests.
In a 2001 letter to Jacques Nasser, Ford Motor Company Chief Executive, John T. Lampe, Chairman / CEO of Bridgestone/Firestone, announced that Bridgestone/Firestone would no longer enter into new contracts with Ford Motor Company, effectively ending a 100-year supply relationship.
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