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The Ford/Firestone Controversy: A Lesson in Problem

Identification
By Joan Burtner1

Introduction
This case study involves issues concerning deaths and injuries as a result of accidents that
involve automobile tire tread separation. The events surrounding this case study reached their peak
on August 9, 2000 when Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford announced a recall of ATX and Wilderness
tires that carried a safety-related defect. Many of the events surrounding this event took place
during 2000 and 2001; however potentially relevant antecedent events can be traced back to several
years earlier. The case study is based on documents made available to the public and reviewed by the
author over a period of eighteen months. Data from the following Web sites have provided the bulk of
the data for this case study: Ford, Firestone, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Public
Citizen, CNN, and ABC News. Every effort has been made to present a balanced view of the
controversy. Nevertheless, students are cautioned that it is likely that some relevant data has not
been made pubic.
This case study is very much a work in progress; data are still being collected, conclusions
are being drawn, and new recommendations are being made as more evidence unfolds. Although a
final resolution of the Ford/Firestone controversy has not been made (and perhaps may never be
made), the events surrounding the August 2000 recall provide engineering and industrial
management students with a real-world example of the complexity of problem identification.

The Investigation
Potential problems with instability of Ford Explorers and tire tread separation of certain
models of Bridgestone/Firestone tires had been known within the industry for several years prior to
the August 2000 recall of certain ATX and Wilderness brand tires (Comander, December 24, 2000;
Public Citizen, January 4, 2001). However the problem came to the attention of the public primarily
through investigative reporting by the media. According to Public Citizen & Safetyforum.com
(January 4, 2001) KHOU-TV in Houston broke the story in February 2000 by reporting about
numerous law suits involving tread separations of Firestone tires that were standard equipment on
Ford Explorer SUVs.
NHTSA initiated a "defect investigation into approximately 47 million ATX, ATXII, and
Wilderness tires manufactured by Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc." on May 2, 2000 (Consumer advisory,
September 1, 2000). The NHTSA Web site does not reveal the number of complaints that led to the
initiation of the investigation at that time. However, CNN reported that the investigation was opened
on the basis of 193 complaints that involved 21 traffic deaths (NHTSA investigating failure, August 3,
2000). Five days later, Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford jointly announced that they were initiating a
1

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voluntary recall of certain Firestone tires (Bridgestone/Firestone voluntary tire recall, August 9,
2000).

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The Initial Recall


News accounts varied as to the actual number of tires recalled. NHTSA placed the number
at 14.4 million (Firestone tire recall, August 9, 2000). According to ABC, "Firestone announced a
voluntary recall of 6.5 million ATX and Wilderness tires." (Documents show, September 6, 2001). A
statement issued by a Bridgestone/Firestone executive vice president on August 9 indicates the
reasoning behind the use of the two different numbers. Crigger notes that although approximately
14.4 million of the tires in question had been produced, Firestone estimated that only 6.5 million
were still in use (Crigger, August 9, 2000).
There was also some confusion about which tires were being recalled. According to the
National
Highway
Traffic
and
Safety
Administration
(NHTSA)
Web
site,
www.nhtsa.dot.gov/hot/firestone/, the August 9 recall covered tires manufactured at the
Bridgestone/Firestone Tire Company's facility located in Decatur, Illinois. Although the general
public most associates the tire separation issue with Ford Explorers, it is important to note that the
recall involved other car models and manufacturers. In addition to four Ford models (Explorer,
Ranger, F-series Light Trucks, Bronco), the recall included two Mazda models and one Mercury
model. (NHTSA)

Data Collection
Throughout the summer and fall of 2000, news accounts varied as to the breadth of the
problem, with different agencies (law firms, Ford, Bridgestone/Firestone, insurance companies such
as State Farm, and consumer watchdogs such as Public Citizen) characterizing the severity of the
problem through conflicting numbers. In August 2000, CNN reported that NHTSA said they were
looking into 21 fatalities associated with tire failure on SUVs (Sears stops selling, August 4, 2000).
The same article reported that the Washington, DC-based advocacy group, Public Citizen, stated
that there were 30 deaths associated with tire tread separation. A little more than a month later,
CNN reported that "88 fatalities and 250 injuries are being investigated by NHTSA" (Phillips,
September 16, 2000). Publicity from congressional investigations and the filing of lawsuits kept the
Firestone tire issue alive throughout October and November. By the end of the year 2000, the
estimates included 148 deaths and 525 injuries (Ford settles 8 Firestone-related lawsuits, December
28, 2000).
The size of NHTSA's database of Firestone-tire-related complaints kept increasing during the
second half of 2000. These complaints dealt with injuries and deaths in the United States associated
with Ford Explorer/Firestone tire separation accidents. Discrepancies in numbers were due in part
to different reporting agencies and time of reporting. Table 1 shows numbers released by NHTSA in
February 2001.
Table 1: Data from NHTSA Firestone tire database
Reporting Period
August 2000

Complaints Received
750

Fatalities Reported
62

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October 2000

3500

119

December 2000

4300

148

February 2001

6000

174

A breakdown of the February 2001 numbers indicates the complexity of the complaint and
data collection process. The 174 deaths came from the following sources: Office of Defects
Investigation (126), Firestone*(19), Ford*(5), State Farm*(3) Safetyforum.com* (19) NHTSAs
FARS*(2). The numbers represented by asterisks were described as non-duplicative complaints.
NHTSA reported that they had reclassified some of the complaints and recalculated the reported
values. These recalculations were due, in part to duplications caused by different reporting methods
of the various sources (Firestone recalls, February 6, 2001).
The August recall occurred three months after the federal government began investigating
the relationship between Ford Explorers and Firestone tires. However the problem was apparent
years earlier. Wrongful death suits related to Firestone ATX tires on Ford Explorers were filed as
early as 1996. (NHTSA investigating, August 3, 2000). On July 24, 2000, two Florida families filed
suits against Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone (Sears stops selling, August 4, 2000). At a hearing in
mid September, Robert Wyant, vice president of corporate quality, stated that the sales division
reviewed the approximate 2000 complaints received about the recalled tires. However, the
Bridgestone/Firestone executive asserted that the sales division had not forwarded the information
him (Phillips, Sept. 16, 2000). Months later, a consumer watchdog agency reported that the first
tread-separation lawsuit was filed against Firestone in February 1991 and that three more were filed
the next year (Public Citizen & Safetyforum.com , January 4, 2001).
In the months following the recall, congressional investigations and depositions as a result of
pending lawsuits yielded further information and opened up room for more questions. It appears that
Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone were aware of complaints about ATX and Wilderness tires in other
countries such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. According to the NHTSA Web site, Ford
acknowledged that they had given free replacements for similar tires sold in Venezuela, Ecuador,
Thailand, Malaysia, Colombia and Saudi Arabia (Bridgestone/Firestone statement regarding
Venezuela voluntary customer satisfaction program, September 4, 2000). Ford recalled close to 7000
tires mounted on Mercury Mountaineers and Ford Explorers operated in various Middle Eastern
nations in August 1999 (Documents show, September 6, 2000).
In spite of the congressional investigations, little data about the tire manufacturing process
was made available. Firestone asserted that production statistics for the four different plants that
manufactured the ATX and Wilderness tires was proprietary information. Ford stated that it was
conducting its own investigation and the results would be reported after the investigation was
complete.
By December 2000 both Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone were ready to release reports of
their investigations into the root cause of the injuries and deaths associated with tire tread
separation (Firestone announces findings of root cause analysis, December 19, 2000). The tire
company cited four causes: the shoulder design of the ATX tires, manufacturing anomalies at the
Decatur plant, Ford recommendations of higher load limits and Ford recommendations of lower tire
pressure (Schaefer, December 20, 2000). Ford's report did not agree with all of Firestone's

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conclusions. Ford acknowledged that tire failures were due to design and manufacturing problems at
the Decatur plant. However, Ford said that its scientists and engineers were still involved in a
statistical analysis of the failure data (Public Citizen & Safetyforum.com, January 4, 2001).
Throughout the spring, Ford continued to assert that the Ford Explorer is a safe vehicle (Naughton,
April 6, 2001). Thus, almost a year after NHTSA began its investigation, the problem and its causes
were still in dispute.

Problem Identification Issues


The facts presented in this case study are relevant to several courses that are may be
included in an undergraduate engineering curriculum. For the purposes of this paper, certain
questions related to problem identification seem especially relevant.
Are the businesses and organizations actively monitoring and responding to customer
complaints?
How effective are the channels of communication within the business?
How effective are the channels of communication with the public?
What role do media and lawyers have in "creating" a problem?
What role do media and lawyers have in producing evidence of a problem?
Are engineers and managers using modern statistical process control tools to determine if
they might be producing a defective product?
Is the available data being interpreted correctly?
Is sufficient information being collected?
How effective are government agencies in protecting the public?

Classroom Applications
Engineering Ethics
In light of EC2000, many engineering educators are including discussions of engineering
ethics in the curriculum. Most standard engineering ethics or engineering design texts (Dym &
Little, 2000; Eide, Jenison, Mashaw, & Northup, 1998; Fleddermann, 1999; Voland, 1999) contain the
full text of one or more professional codes of engineering ethics. But learning to become an ethical
engineer involves more than memorizing codes of ethics. Pfatteicher (2001) recommends that we
teach engineering ethics through studying cases and raising questions. The Ford/Firestone facts
presented earlier in this paper seem well suited to the type of teaching that Pfatteicher recommends.
The case is messy and complex; at this time there is no clear villain or hero.
Practicing engineers know that professionalism requires them to consider public safety. In
the case of the Firestone/Ford relationship, Ford served as the client. At least one source states that
Firestone engineers testified that they tried to negotiate more reasonable specifications for the SUV
tires but were unable to come to a satisfactory agreement (Public Citizen & Safetyforum.com,
January 4, 2001). Class discussions about the nature of the tread separation problem as well as
management's efforts to accurately identify the problem can be relevant in an engineering ethics
course.
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Engineering Design and Manufacturing Courses


This cases study raises concerns about product safety measures taken by companies such as
Ford and Firestone. In spite of the fact that the August recall was "voluntary", Firestone made it
clear that the recall was not an admission of guilt. The reasons for the tire failure were still a matter
of debate (Public Citizen & Safetyforum.com, January 4, 2001). Bridgestone/Firestone representative
Gary Crigger issued a statement several days after the recall noting that improper maintenance,
damage to tires, and under inflation which leads to overheating were potential factors (Crigger,
August 9, 2000). ABC News reports that, during congressional hearings held one month later,
Firestone claimed that the tire problems were the result of repair problems, road hazards and
operating conditions. Representatives from Ford pointed out that nearly 3 million Goodyear tires
that were used on Ford Explorers did not seem to be having a similar problem (Documents show
Firestone knew of defects in 1997, September 6, 2000).
Reports issued several months later gave a clearer picture. Firestone acknowledged
problems with the tire design and manufacture, but it also cited Ford's recommended tire pressure
and the design of the Ford Explorer as factors (Government investigators, December 21, 2000). Ford
blamed tire design and manufacture as the primary cause and said that it did not believe it had
contributed in any way to the tire problems (Government investigators, December 21, 2000). Public
Citizen President Joan Claybrook, a former NHSTA administrator, charged that the recall was
inadequate and that both Ford and Firestone were more interested in the bottom line than consumer
safety (Public Citizen, January 4, 2001).

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Ford stated that they planned to do what is right for their customers. (NHTSA investigating,
August 3, 2000). The tire recall less than a week later seemed to verify their intentions. Ford's
willingness to let dealers replace Firestone tires with other makes indicates a good faith effort to
help the consumer (Ford lets dealers replace. (September 16, 2000). However Ford spent the next
several months blaming Firestone and denying that Explorer's design was a factor in the accidents.
The resolution in a timely manner is also a question. It was stated earlier that wrongful death suits
related to Firestone ATX tires on Ford Explorers were filed as early as 1996; yet the recall did not
occur until 2000. The discrepancy in numbers of tires recalled is a symptom of a larger problem.
Different players interpret the same data differently. As with most consumer product recalls, the
August 6, 2000 decision to recall tires made at the Decatur, Illinois plant involved a judgment call. To
this day, several key players differ in their judgments concerning the adequacy of the recall.

Statistical Quality Control


This case study highlights several important quality principles. Modern automobiles are
complex systems of interrelated parts. In such complex systems it is not easy to determine cause and
effect. As one historian observes. "classic disasters were deterministic" (Tenner, 1997. p.31); however
modern disasters are more probabilistic. Analysis of cause and effect requires statistical inference.
Data gathering through the design of experiments and process control charting should help define
the nature of the problem as well as determine if defective products were being released to the
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public. However Firestone has not made quality statistics available, citing proprietary information as
an excuse.
Data on the defect rate and rework at each plant could be examined if they were made
available. It appears that the companies initiated the recall before conclusive evidence was gathered.
This willingness to recall before scientific evidence could be collected and analyzed was an act of good
faith. Cynics may say that the companies were trying to prevent more lawsuits. While that may be
true, the NHTSA complaints at the time of the recall were not overwhelming in light of the numbers
of tires manufactured to date.
Congressional investigations indicated that proper testing procedures were not followed or
that adequate documentation was not kept. (Comander, December 24, 2000). Even after overseas
accidents caused a retesting of tires, the Firestone tests did not reveal problems. It is possible that
tires were put on the road even when similarly designed tires failed. Testimony indicated that a
manager in Firestone's sales engineering department judged that the amount of testing was
sufficient (Comander, December 24, 2000).
Taguchi defines quality in terms of the way the product will be used in the field (Devor,
Chang and Sutherland, 1992.). However an analysis of design failures in the past indicates that it is
not always easy to anticipate how the manufacture or use of a device will influence its safety. As
mentioned earlier, Firestone reports emphasize the fact that consumer use and repair were
contributing factors in the deaths and injuries associated with tire separation.

Conclusion
Thus it can be seen that the Ford/Firestone Controversy provides a rich case in which the
complexity of problem identification is clearly shown. Eighteen months after the initial recall, many
questions remain. Have we really determined the root cause of the tire failure? Have we recalled all
of the dangerous tires? Have we fully investigated the relationship between SUV rollovers and tire
failure? Will NHTSA do a better job in the future to uncover the existence of a life-threatening
problem in a timely manner? Must victims and their families resort to expensive lawsuits in order to
prove that a problem exists? Will the differing viewpoints of design engineers, manufacturers, and
company executives be resolved before additional lives are lost?

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References
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Bridgestone/Firestone voluntary tire recall. (2000, August 9). Retrieved 4/8/01 from the World Wide
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Comander, L. (2000, Dec. 24). Tire testing overhaul is long overdue, critics say. Retrieved 4/21/01
from the World Wide Web: http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/businessnews/article/0,2669,ART48874,FF.html
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from

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Crigger, G. (2000, Aug. 9). Statement by Gary Crigger. Available: Retrieved 4/8/01 from the World
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Devor, Chang and Sutherland, (1992) Statistical Process and Quality Control. McMillan.
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from

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the

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