The leader of the House subcommittee that held the first hearings on the Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. tire issue is suggesting that the companies withheld research information that shows they knew the 6.5 million tires they recalled may have been defective.
Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., said that he's requested from Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone all the data regarding their tests they conducted running the tires at a lower air pressure. In spite of the fact the companies have sent literally hundreds of boxes of documents, he feels that some of the research data is missing. Tauzin will conduct a hearing on Thursday to review the matter.
"I think when we get the safety data on these tests, it's going to be an ugly picture," he said at a press conference last week. "We're going to learn that the testing they did gave them some pretty bad results or that they didn't test at all, which is even worse."
Tauzin's spokesperson, Ken Johnson, said if the company didn't comply with the requests, subpoenas could be forthcoming. This week's hearing will be the second in a week and the fourth overall since the first round of hearings on Aug. 9.
At the heart of the matter this time is the recommended air pressure for the ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. Firestone recommends the tires be inflated to 35 psi, while Ford recommends 26 psi. Tauzin is acting on a theory that when the tires are inflated to Ford's recommended levels, it helps avert possible rollover, but makes the tires prone to the tread separation and blowouts.
Conversely, Ford president and CEO Jac Nasser denies the allegation. He said the company tested the tires at the pressure it recommends at 100 mph under "normal" testing standards. However, he said that the company would make sure that Tauzin had copies of the test results by the Sept. 15 deadline and that Ford would comply with whatever requests Tauzin and the committee submitted.
New legislation introduced
Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., claims that his Senate Commerce Committee hopes to consider new legislation Wednesday to improve the process regulatory agency investigators detect, investigate and recall defective vehicles.
"When manufacturers fail to tell the truth or purposely neglect to report safety data and people lose their lives, severe penalties must result," he said.
Additionally, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., introduced the TREAD Act into the House last week. TREAD stands for Transportation Reporting Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation. The bill, if passed, will broaden the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's abilities to collect information on defective product and increase its budget.
Ford steps into spotlight
William Clay Ford Jr., Ford chairman, finally made his first public comments on the debacle during a phone conference last week. He said he had refrained from making any statements because he didn't want to add confusion to an already chaotic situation.
Initially, the questions regarding the automaker's involvement in hearings were technical in nature so there was no reason for him to become involved, he said. However, the tone has shifted recently calling into question the company's reputation and that was something, after some consideration, he could not idly sit by and allow to happen.
"This started off as a product recall issue and in that sense there was absolutely no reason for me to get involved," he said. "Somewhere, literally almost overnight, it flipped into an enormous public relations and governmental relations issue. (Jac Nasser) was already out front and doing a terrific job."
Bill Ford said he will be more visible in the recall effort, but didn't comment on what exactly that would entail. He did say that the company needed to rebuild its trust with the public. That may mean the elimination of single sourcing tires and dropping Firestone as a supplier in 2002 "if that's what the public wants."
Bill Ford has a unique perspective on the situation as he is the great-grandson of Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, who founded Firestone. The Firestone family sold the business to Japanese-owned Bridgestone in 1988.
He said while the family has no real financial connection to the company anymore, they are disturbed by the events of the last two months. Ford said he was disappointed in the current management of Firestone and equally as proud of the team at Ford. Just to prove the support that Nasser and Bill Ford have behind them, the board of directors recently held a vote of confidence, which came down in favor of the pair.