Firestone mess leads to tighter controls

After the Ford-Firestone mess, several automakers say they are paying closer attention to the warranty and claims data from tire makers to spot troubles early.

"We are looking to identify issues as soon as possible. We are constantly looking at the process," said Chrysler group spokeswoman Angela Ford.

For most automakers, the tires are one of the few parts that are warranted separately. But automakers have greater access to that information. General Motors is establishing procedures that will funnel tire performance data and all other warranty claims from around the world into a central location.

"Work is under way to bring not just tires but all warranty claims together," said GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan.

In April, John Lampe, CEO of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., outlined several ways the company would improve quality and monitor warranty claims. He said Bridgestone/Firestone would create a global information network among its plants and customers to exchange information to be used in an early warning system.

Global standards

He said the tire maker also would establish global manufacturing standards in all of its plants to produce tires with consistent quality. Jill Bratina spokeswoman for Bridgestone/ Firestone, said those plans are being used.

Ford, as a part of its early warning system to catch tire defects, is collecting and analyzing claims data from tire makers, said Jason Vines, vice president of corporate communications.

Vines said Ford will continue to test tires on vehicles to the point of failure, the same as GM. But Ford's procurement of tires has not changed, he said.

"We put out performance specifications, not design specifications," he said. "We are not getting in the business of designing tires."

Firestone tires, mostly the Wilderness brand designed to Ford's specifications and installed on the Ford Explorer, are blamed for 271 deaths, most of which occurred in rollover accidents after a blowout.

Ford is spending $2.1 billion after taxes this year replacing 13 million Firestone tires and has paid out hundreds of millions to settle lawsuits.

In recent months Ford has moved to settle the hundreds of outstanding lawsuits and get the episode behind it.

Michelin North America Inc. has made no changes to the way it collects or examines warranty data or handles claims as a result of the Ford-Firestone mess.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. also has made no changes and continues to use Bridgestone and Firestone tires, said spokesman John Hanson.

"The tires we get from Bridgestone/Firestone are very different (from the same brand used on other vehicles), even when you are talking about the Wilderness brand," he said.

"We have not had any major claims, and we've been very happy with the tires we have been receiving."

Rules expected in June

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is completing stricter testing procedures and is expected to have the rules in place by June.

A detailed reporting system designed to spot quickly potential defects requires automakers and tire manufacturers to track defects and claims worldwide and report regularly to NHTSA.

The Rubber Manufacturers Association, a trade group representing all seven North American tire makers, is developing a reporting format that all its member companies will use.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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