Ethics are a crucial aspect of a tire engineer´s job, a longtime expert witness in lawsuits against tire companies told his peers in his last speech before retirement.
"The tire industry has an important ethical responsibility," said Dick Baumgardner, president of Tire Consultants Inc. "As engineers, you have to make decisions to limit your liability and save the lives of people.
Baumgardner, a speaker at the Clemson Tire Conference, quoted the fundamental canons from the National Society of Professional Engineers: "Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public." Those who supply the tire industry, he said, share in the responsibility to uphold that code.
The society´s rules of practice, the consultant said, state if an engineer is overruled on an issue that involves life or property, he or she must notify employers, clients and other appropriate authorities.
"Wow!" he said. "If you´re involved with a faulty product and your management won´t change it, you´re going to tell some authority? That´s a problem."
Compounding the difficulty is the U.S. legal system, in which corporate and plaintiffs´ attorneys zealously protect the interests of their clients, by any means necessary, according to Baumgardner.
"Attorneys have been described as gladiators-their job is to fight to the death," he said. "They are out to slit your throat, and they´ll misinterpret everything you say. Corporate attorneys and plaintiffs´ attorneys do not differ one iota, except for who they represent."
Still, he said, "if you do your job well, attorneys won´t have much to do."
Of course it helps when management is as committed to high ethical standards as engineers, Baumgardner said. He remembered a time, when he was manager of tire engineering at Firestone (now Bridgestone/Firestone), when he came to then-President Raymond Firestone with evidence that truck tires made with rayon were prone to failure, causing fatal accidents.
"I told him we needed to change to nylon," he said. "At that time, 70 percent of our production was rayon. But Firestone said, ´We can´t have people dying on our tires.´ Within a few days, all our truck tire production had switched to nylon."
"All the other companies were still using rayon, so it was a big gamble," he said. "But they were having the same problems and followed us in a few months. Meanwhile, our sales department hated me for taking away their favorite product, and the other engineers — including my manager — were very upset with me."
Too often engineers can´t make the correct safety decisions regarding their products because they don´t have access to field or accident reports, according to Baumgardner. "You are really flying blind if you are analyzing a product based on adjustment reports."
Other times, engineers and management fall prey to what Baumgardner called "Ivory Tower Syndrome," in which they make decisions high-handedly without considering the practical or ethical implications.
One time, he said, a company official made an alteration to a tire without testing the changed product or consulting anyone else in the company. "He said, ´OK, let´s have the public test it,´ " Baumgardner said. Another time, an engineer with his manager´s approval altered the test for the nose gear tires for the Lockheed L-1011 aircraft to make it look as if the tires their company made met Lockheed´s specifications. "Where were their ethics?" Baumgardner asked.
Baumgardner also spoke of tires from two unnamed manufacturers used on the same vehicle model for an OE customer. After five years, he said, the tires of Manufacturer A had the same peel strength that the tires of Manufacturer B had at the beginning of their service lives, he said. Not surprisingly, Manufacturer A´s tires had two reports of tread separations, whereas Manufacturer B´s had 1,183.
"(That) should have been the wake-up call for the engineers (at Manufacturer B) to replace the steel belt package," he said. "But that would have required their access to the failed tires and the accident reports."
Although Baumgardner is best known as a plaintiffs´ witness, he doesn´t always see eye-to-eye with plaintiffs´ attorneys. For example, he declared it unethical to put an expiration date on tires, despite the advocacy for the idea of groups such as Safety Research and Strategies Inc., a consumer watchdog group with close ties to plaintiffs´ lawyers.
"If you base the rule on how quickly tires age in Florida, that would be unethical," he said. "Why should people in the northern states throw out their tires because they´re being run down in Florida? That is not in the interest of the public."