Ford, Firestone Face Congress

-TCC's award-winning coverage of the Firestone recall

Last week’s Congressional hearings on the Ford/Firestone fiasco have raised more questions than they have answered — and Congressmen like Louisiana’s Billy Tauzin appear to already have begun choosing sides in the contentious debate over the safety of Firestone tires and the Ford Explorer.

The finger pointing, in fact, got underway before either Ford CEO Jacques Nasser or Bridgestone/Firestone's American chief even had time to read their respective prepared statements during the public hearings. A spokesman for Billy Tauzin, the Louisiana Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said there was evidence that some of the tires Ford was using as replacements actually had higher rates of claims against them than Firestone Wilderness AT targeted in the recall.

An angry Nasser pressed Tauzin during the hearing to back up the assertions of his spokesman with hard data. John Dingell, whose district includes Ford headquarters in Dearborn and the auto industry's favorite Democrat, quickly backed up Nasser and pressed Tauzin to come up with the data that the replacements are no better or perhaps worse than the Firestone tires. It was an outrage that Tauzin had not shared the data with the other committee members, Dingell said.

Nasser was accompanied to Capitol Hill by a phalanx of Ford dealers and more than 3000 Ford employees, who drove Explorers to Washington, D.C., for the hearing to demonstrate their confidence in the vehicles they built. Ford paid the employees for their "lost time," as well as their hotel and gasoline bills, officials from both Ford and the United Auto Workers said.

Tauzin finally said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) needed more time to evaluate the data presented to them, and could take 30 days to complete. The chairman, however, did point to two tires — the Goodyear Wrangler HT P235/75/R15, which had separation rate of 13.7 per million and General Tire Corp.'s Grabber APXL P235/75/R15, which had a claims rate of 10.9 per million.

In addition, the Congressman claimed that one of the replacement tire models cited by his committee had a rate of 124 claims per million, compared with the five claims per million Ford said it relied on. Ford said the five claims per million figure was derived by NHTSA based on a sampling of tires and was not meant to be an industry standard.

Ken Zino, a Ford spokesman, said the Tauzin and committee had an obligation to turn over the information as soon as possible. "We want to see their data," he said.

Ford executives also believe Tauzin has now tilted toward full hearings and point out that one of the Tauzin's closest aides is now a top lobbyist for Bridgestone/Firestone. Tauzin, however, said the point of the investigation at this time is to improve the safety of all tires used by the motoring public.

Before the hearing began, NHTSA reported that 203 people have died in crashes linked to blowouts and tread separations of Firestone tires used on the popular Ford Explorer.

Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires last summer, but Ford announced in May that it would expand the recall on its own and replace a total of 13 million 15-inch, 16-inch, and 17-inch Firestone Wilderness AT on all its vehicles after a root-cause analysis done by the automaker's own engineers and consultant concluded the other tires made by Firestone are failure prone. So far, one million tires have been replaced, Nasser said.

The recall in May also led to an open rupture between Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford, which pointedly turned to the Japanese tire maker’s chief rivals, Goodyear, Michelin and Continental AG for replacement tires. Bridgestone/Firestone has countered by charging that the Explorer in the configuration Ford built between 1990 and 2001 is rollover prone.

Lampe noted during the hearing that research conducted by Ohio State University professor, Dr. Dennis Guenther, one of the country's most highly regarded experts in the field of vehicle dynamics, indicated that a substantial segment of Explorers is defectively designed. The Explorer, according to the study that was paid for by Bridgestone/Firestone, has a tendency to oversteer without the driver's knowledge. "This makes the Explorer's handling imprecise and unpredictable in these situations, where precise and predictable handling is essential to safe vehicle control," Lampe said in his prepared statement.

Lampe also said information from the Florida Traffic Crash Database showing that for 1994 through 2000 model year vehicles registered in Florida, the Explorer rolls over twice as much as all other comparable SUVs in single-vehicle, non-tire related highway accidents. "These warning signs cannot and should not be ignored," he added. "As I've said before, Ford can replace all of our Wilderness AT tires, but Explorers will continue to roll over. And we need to understand why," Lampe said.

Ford officials said after the hearing that Lampe's assertions were at odds with the facts. "Like all other vehicles and SUVs, the Explorer's chassis design has been optimized for operation with good tires and not designed specifically for tread separation events,” company officials said.

"This is a tire problem. Not a vehicle problem," Nasser once again reiterated for Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline after the long day of hearings. "Our customers love their Explorers," which is still the best selling SUV in the country.

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