NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Frustrated customers looking to replace their Firestone tires may have to remain frustrated for quite some time.|
Bridgestone Corp., whose U.S. unit recalled three types of Firestone tires on Wednesday, estimates the recall will take 10-to-12 months to complete.
Many customers have already left Firestone dealers angrily, after their efforts to replace their tires were thwarted by a lack of supply.
"It wouldn't surprise me if there are no 235/15 tires in stock in the U.S., anywhere," of any make, said David Champion, director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports magazine.
An external spokesman said Bridgestone/Firestone, the U.S. unit of the Tokyo-based company, would work as quickly as it can "to address and satisfy customers."
Competitors' tires will fit
Customers with tires covered by the recall can replace them with tires of the same size made by other tire companies such as Goodyear, Michelin and Cooper, if they can find them.
Consumers need to buy P235/75R15 tires as replacements - that's an industry standard size, and is the size covered by the Firestone recall. Every major tire manufacturer makes a tire that could serve as a replacement, according to Chuck Sinclair, director of public relations for Goodyear.
But beyond checking the size, consumers also need to make sure the tires are all-terrain tires, Sinclair said. Ford, which sells new Explorer sport/utility vehicles with Firestone tires, specifies that the tires must have all-terrain treads.
Consumers should not buy other types of replacement tire, such as high-performance or all-season tires, Sinclair said, even if they fit.
Bridgestone has not yet decided how or if it will compensate people who take matters into their own hands by buying other brands. It has said it will buy other brands of tires to meet demand as necessary.
"Obviously, given the number of tires, there are going to have to be other suppliers," said Ken Fields, speaking on behalf of Firestone. But the company still encourages consumers to go to a Firestone dealer and make an appointment to get the tires replaced, even if it is with another brand, he said.
Consumer consider options
But consumer advocates said consumers do not always do as told.
"Many consumers will not wait," Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said. "It's not a question of whether we encourage them or not. They're going to get these [tires]."
While Bridgestone has not decided how to handle customers who go outside its dealership chain, Ditlow said it would be a public-relations disaster for the company not to compensate them, too.
Bridgestone was slow with this recall, Ditlow said. But he thinks the company learned one lesson from its 1978 recall of more than 14 million 500-series tires.
"I think that they were calculating on this never becoming public, that the government wouldn't find out about it," Ditlow said. Now that the government has, the company knows it should not fight the recall, as it did in 1978, he said.
"If you fight it, it's only going to get worse," he said. "They're being forced to be more cooperative."
A spokesman for Bridgestone said the company only learned of the problem in February after a Houston radio station aired a story on the tires. Ford recalled the tires in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Venezuela and Thailand, but that was Ford's decision, he said.
The problems in other countries seemed to be caused by drivers using deliberately underinflated tires, the spokesman said.
Tires in short supply
The recall's massive scope is affecting all tire manufacturers. Bridgestone estimates that it is recalling 6.5 million tires, since the company believes just half of the 14.4 million produced are still on the road.
The affected tires are all 15-inch ATX and ATX II makes, which carry the P235/75R15 size designation. The size should be clearly visible on the outside of the tire, in raised letters.
Firestone is also recalling 15-inch Wilderness AT tires, which also have the P235/75R15 size designation, made at Firestone's Decatur, Ill., plant.
Those tires have an identification number on the inside wall of the tire - the side away from the curb - that starts with the letters "VD." The letters VD mean the tire was made in Decatur.
At 6.5 million tires, simple math - assuming four tires per vehicle -- suggests that around 1.6 million consumers are affected. Bridgestone struggles with an estimate because some of the tires are spares, and some were sold in pairs rather than sets of four. Some consumers have taken the recall in stride, saying they haven't noticed a problem with their tires. But plenty have scurried to get their tires replaced immediately.
Manufacturers caught short due to low inventory
But tire manufacturers, like car manufacturers, don't like to keep large stocks of inventory. It's expensive to do that. Instead they manufacture their products to meet demand. They track how many cars in a certain line are being made, and match that.
"Our inventories are managed closely to a model - we don't keep a lot of tires in those sizes around," Sinclair at Goodyear explained. "We keep an adequate supply for a normal situation."
This is not normal. On Wednesday, orders for 15-inch Goodyear tires increased 2,500 percent over normal, Sinclair said. Thursday saw even stronger demand.
"It is a very frenzied situation out there," he said. Goodyear has upped production of the tires in question by 50 percent already and targets an increase of 250 percent, he said.
Bridgestone has also ramped up its tire production in North America - it has plants in Canada and Mexico as well as the United States -- to try to meet demand.
It is doubling production of Wilderness AT tires at plants other than Decatur, Bridgestone said Friday. Those will be Firestone's replacement tires.
"We're manning up production as much as we can," said Richard Thomas, a spokesman with Bridgestone/Firestone in Nashville, Tenn. "We can only produce so many."
A time-consuming process
Consumers may have to be patient, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA is the government body overseeing the recall. It is also investigating consumer complaints about the tires. Regulators have letters linking them to 46 deaths.
Bridgestone is cooperating with the investigation and has furnished extensive documentation on the tires to NHTSA.
Although Bridgestone has announced the tire recall, it has yet to submit a letter to NHTSA. That letter sets the formal recall in motion. It has to explain how the company will notify customers, how it will replace or repair the recalled product and how it will remedy the problem.
Bridgestone has also said it will notify affected customers by letter. Once it sends those letters to consumers, Bridgestone has 60 days to replace the tires, according to a NHTSA spokeswoman's reading of the recall rules.
Otherwise, the recall has to be conducted in "reasonable time," the spokeswoman said. For consumers, "patience is the only alternative in most cases."
Tips until the recall arrives
David Champion at Consumer Reports has some tips for consumers waiting for new tires.
Do not overload your vehicle, he advised.
Bear in mind that extended driving at high speeds on any tire increases the chance of a blowout.
Inflate the Firestone tires in question at 30 pounds per square inch, he said, which is what Bridgestone recommends. Check the pressure once a month.
At the same time, look for any cuts, cracks or bulges in the tire, he said.
If you notice any, or you notice strange vibrations in the steering or through the vehicle, take the vehicle to a tire dealer and ask them to check the tires.
Otherwise, "wait for your recall," he said.
Three stages to finish by summer 2001
Bridgestone says the three phase recall starts in four hot-weather states where Bridgestone says the most problems with the tires have occurred: Arizona, California, Florida and Texas. Supplies of replacement tires will be directed there first.
That phase should be finished in October, Bridgestone projects.
Phase Two comprises seven Southern and Southwestern states that also have severe hot weather in the summer: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Phase Three covers the rest of the United States.
All three phases should finish by summer 2001, according to Bridgestone.
Ford to tap another tire maker
All new Ford Explorers, the most popular brand of S/UV, currently come with Wilderness AT tires. Firestone no longer makes ATX or ATX II tires.
Mike Vaughn, Ford spokesman for service programs, said he understands that the Decatur plant stopped making Wilderness AT tires in January.
So although customers who buy new Explorers will get Wilderness AT tires on the vehicle, he believes there are very few Wilderness AT tires made in Decatur that are still on lots.
"It's our thought that there are very few of these tires on dealers' lots at the moment," Vaughn said. "With just-in-time production, it's doubtful that there are many out there."
Still, Ford has told its dealers to inspect Explorers before they ship them to customers, looking for the VD designation on the tires.
Ford will continue to put Wilderness AT tires on Explorers. All the 2001 models will have them.
Ford will put Firestone tires on the majority of a much-redesigned 2002 Explorer when that comes out. But Ford will also sell Explorers with another company's tires on them. Vaughn would not reveal which company would supplement its supply. Goodyear would only say it has been in talks with Ford.
Bridgestone's dedicated number for the Firestone tire recall is (800) 465-1904. Consumers can call the number to find the Firestone dealer nearest them and for instructions on how to identify tires affected by the recall.
Ford also has a dedicated number to help Ford customers who think their tires might be affected by the recall.
The Ford number for the Firestone recall is (800) 660-4719.
Consumers can also reach Ford's general customer-assistance center at (800) 392-3673.