Carmakers in Europe should be studying the Firestone tire disaster in the USA closely. It could happen here.
News reports and a US government safety investigation prompted Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. to recall 6.5 million Firestone tires in the USA on August 9. Many of the tires were on popular Ford Explorer sport-utilities.
Critics of Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone say the companies knew about the problem for years but kept quiet about it. Ford blames Bridgestone/Firestone for the problem.
But the issue is more complicated in Europe. Ford got into trouble in the USA because it was not responsible for the tire warranty on its vehicles. The responsibility was with tiremaker Bridgestone/Firestone. Ford warranties the rest of the vehicle. Ford claims its usual early-warning systems did not pick up the problem because it was not responsible for monitoring the warranty data.
A European Council regulation states that the manufacturer of a product is responsible for what it builds. That rule is currently under review.
But traditionally tires have been viewed differently to other parts of the car, both in Europe and the USA.
'We consider tires a consumer product,' said Nancy Banks, spokeswoman for tiremaker Michelin in Clermont Ferrand, France. By contrast, 'the battery or hoses are considered part of car.'
If there is a problem with a Michelin tire, it goes back to the tire dealer - a practice that is common throughout the industry, she said.
In the USA, there is also a tradition of product-liability lawsuits that is not as strong in Europe.
'Product liability is caseby-case anyway,' said Marc Greven, legal director for ACEA, the Brussels-based European
automakers' association. 'Particularly if you have more than one manufacturer involved, the decision on a company's liability will be made on a case-by-case basis.'
The issue is complicated by the fact that regulations on warranties differ country-by-country across Europe.
'It's a very tough question,' said Bruno Seifert, spokesman for Adam Opel AG. Seifert said that, in Germany, Opel is responsible for the entire vehicle it sells to a customer. If there is a problem with any part, including tires, Opel is ultimately liable, he said.
In the USA, Opel parent General Motors has been an exception to the rule that tiremakers cover their products.
Since about 1996, GM has monitored the warranty data received by its four tire suppliers. That means that if there is a problem with a tire, the car dealer can handle it. That makes life simpler for customers, said Michelin's Banks.
'If you look at any of the consumer laws, Europe is very different to the USA,' she said. 'It seems there is more consumer-oriented litigation in the USA than there is here.'
Because Ford doesn't sell many Explorers in Europe, the tire problem has not really crossed the Atlantic. According to a Ford spokesman, only about 1,100 Explorers sold here since 1993 have been affected.