IT SEEMS little noticed in Europe, but Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone's Firestone subsidiary are in big trouble in America following a voluntary recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires there.
The story, which has dominated the American news media in recent weeks, has tragic proportions. The US federal safety agency has attributed 88 deaths to failures of Firestone tires in America.
The problem has also spread to other countries. In Venezuela, Ford and Firestone may face criminal charges for having allegedly failed to disclose what it knew about the problem tires.
Never has an auto supplier been so besieged. Its main product has been blamed for many deaths; it has alienated its biggest customer; its stock price is plunging; and its top executive in the USA has been called to testify before the American Congress.
But the Ford-Firestone fiasco is not the only blight on the auto industry in recent weeks. In Japan, Mitsubishi Motors is under tremendous criticism for having hidden customers' complaints about a series of defects, including failing brakes, fuel leaks and malfunctioning clutches. Since July, Mitsubishi has recalled 620,000 vehicles after government inspectors found hidden documents about defects.
None of the defects has been known to cause deaths, although several accidents in Japan have been attributed to them.
Mitsubishi recently gave the government a report that found workers and managers knowingly and systematically filed away consumer complaints about defects since 1977. Tokyo police last week searched Mitsubishi offices in a continuing investigation of the alleged 20-year cover-up.
The precise causes of the Firestone and Mitsubishi problems have not been determined. But they demonstrate the calamities that can result from engineering failures.
Indeed, Europeans cannot ignore the problems affecting auto companies elsewhere. Bad things happen to even the best companies as the pressures of the industry intensify.
Automotive companies cling to slender margins, while investing staggering amounts to meet growing competition. They have no choice but to cut development times, shift to more virtual engineering and contract out more development and testing work. But there are risks from such measures. Carmakers and their suppliers can't afford to get it wrong.
The auto industry has a history of getting into trouble when it resorts to shortcuts. Shortcuts are shortcuts. They can't be confused with efficiency.
There are other lessons to be drawn from the twin disasters. For example, the lack of coordination between Ford and Firestone as they respond publicly to the crisis in America has been startling. It emphasizes the increased level of strategic cooperation needed between suppliers and carmakers who share more responsibility for complicated components.
In the end, there is no substitute for frankness. In general, the auto industry is much more open than it used to be in times of crisis. Three years ago, Daimler-Benz had to deal with two public relations catastrophes - the A-class and Smart car safety problems. Daimler came out of the crises because it dealt honestly with the public, admitted its mistakes and fixed them.
And it worked. Avis, which two years ago refused to rent Smart cars because of safety concerns, now can't get enough of them to satisfy its customers.
When faced with problems like those at Ford, Firestone and Mitsubishi, automotive companies must push for answers and withhold nothing. Making decisions designed to avoid embarrassment is the worst kind of mistake.