WASHINGTON (Sept. 14, 2000)—The gloves very nearly came off in the testimony of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the Firestone ATX and Wilderness recall.
BFS Executive Vice President John Lampe, testifying at the Sept. 12 event, sounded a new, more vigorous note for the company in zeroing in on the cause of the tire problems, describing what the company is doing about them and—most notably—suggesting Ford Motor Co. must share blame.
"We take full responsibility for the tire failures," Mr. Lampe said. "We firmly believe, however, that the tire is only part of the overall safety problem."
Mr. Lampe´s testimony was in direct conflict with that of Ford CEO Jacques Nasser, who, like Mr. Lampe, quoted federal data to make his points.
For example, Mr. Lampe said there were reports of 16,000 Ford Explorer rollover accidents, with 600 deaths related to them. Only "a very, very small percentage" involved tire failures, he said.
Mr. Lampe also admitted BFS had signed off in 1989 on Ford´s suggestion that the recommended air pressure on the original equipment tires for the Explorer be 26 psi. "But in hindsight, maybe it´s something we´d want to reconsider," he said.
Mr. Nasser repeated the data he presented at the Sept. 6 joint meeting of two House Commerce subcommittees: The Ford Explorer had an incidence of rollovers nearly 30 percent below those of other SUVs.
He also reiterated his position that the nearly 3 million tires Goodyear provided as OE to the Explorer never had tread separation problems, despite Mr. Lampe citing a document submitted to the House Commerce Committee that suggests otherwise.
Mr. Nasser stepped up his attack on Bridgestone/Firestone, blaming the tire maker completely for the 6.5 million-tire recall and accusing it of lying to Ford and the public.
"Last week, I listened in disbelief as senior Firestone executives not only acknowledged that Firestone had analyzed its claims data, but also identified significant patterns of tread separations as early as 1998," Mr. Nasser said. "Yet they said nothing to anyone, including Ford Motor Co. This is not the candid and frank dialogue Ford expects in its business relationships."
Later this year, Ford will begin offering its customers a choice of tires on the Explorer SUV, Mr. Nasser said. Ford already has signed Michelin North America Inc. to be an alternative tire supplier for the 2002 Explorer, and reportedly also has approached Goodyear. But Mr. Nasser´s announcement speeds up this action and further signifies the deterioration of relations between Ford and BFS.
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., ranking Democrat on Senate Commerce, described the sour feelings between the two companies in his opening statement: "It´s like tying two cats by the tail and throwing them over the clothesline and letting them claw each other."
Mr. Lampe´s testimony before Senate Commerce contrasted markedly with company presentations before the House Commerce subcommittees the previous week. Bridgestone/Firestone CEO Masatoshi Ono, delivering the company´s main speech, was hampered in the question-and-answer session by his limited English, while executive vice presidents Gary Crigger and Robert J. Wyant seemed nonplussed by the often hostile questions.
At the Sept. 12 hearing, Mr. Ono read a brief opening statement before turning the testimony over to Mr. Lampe, and Mr. Wyant also was on hand to help answer committee questions. But it was Mr. Lampe who took charge in what was both the company´s most vigorous defense and clearest mea culpasince the recall began.
"We recognize we have a problem—a very complex problem that must be solved because lives are at stake," he said. "For too long we didn´t see the problem."
Mr. Lampe repeated the company´s stand that it had used "the traditional measures of product performance´´—test data, analyses of failed tires, warranty adjustment data—to evaluate the ATX and Wilderness tires. Failure to evaluate the claims data, plus the company´s expectation of failures at a level any tire maker can count on in normal usage, prevented Bridgestone/Firestone from recognizing the problem quickly, he said.
BFS now has narrowed the problem to two possible factors, Mr. Lampe said: "the unique design specification of the 235/75R15 combined with manufacturing variations at the Decatur (Ill.) plant." At a press conference after the hearing, Mr. Lampe said the variations may lie with a belt in the tire, but declined to elaborate.
The company has hired Sanjay Govindjee, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, to review BFS´ research and help provide a definitive solution, Mr. Lampe said.
In choosing Mr. Govindjee, Mr. Lampe said the company´s top priority was to choose "a completely independent, third-party investigator" who had never been on the BFS payroll in any way.
"We had another consultant all lined up," he said, "but then we discovered he´d had a previous connection with the company."
Although federal databases show that tire failure plays a role in less than 10 percent of rollover accidents, Mr. Lampe said, that is still far too many.
"In most cases, a vehicle that experiences a tire failure can be brought safely under control," he said. "However, we have seen an alarming number of serious accidents from rollovers of the Explorer after tire failure." He added that BFS would work closely with the committee and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to study the interaction between tires and vehicles.
Regarding the Decatur plant, Mr. Lampe noted that by the end of 1995, virtually all striking workers there had been called back to work, side-by-side with replacement workers. He stopped short of saying this could be part of the explanation, but said, "We´re not taking anything off the table."
As for Mr. Nasser´s contention that only Firestone tires suffered tread separations on the Ford Explorer, Mr. Lampe referred to "Document 54," submitted to House Commerce, which he said shows Ford did receive customer complaints about tread separations on tires made by BFS´ competitors. He added, however, that Document 54 is "a document we´ve never seen." Tire Business has not yet obtained a copy of Document 54.
Mr. Lampe acknowledged that "we think 30 psi is much better" as a recommended air pressure for the Wilderness and ATX tires, but added that the tires should never have failed at a constantly maintained pressure of 26 psi. He refused to blame Ford when asked point-blank to do so. "How can I put the blame on someone else when I admit there was something we should have been more careful with?" he said.
While Mr. Lampe said BFS takes responsibility for the tire problems, he also said, "If you look at the claims data, they still only represent two-hundredths of one percent of our production."
Before the committee, Mr. Lampe answered questions from Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and others regarding a news story saying Bridgestone/Firestone had covered up problems with tires purchased by the Arizona Fish & Game Department in 1996.
"In 1996, there was a request by the Fish & Game Department in Arizona to come out and look at tires they weren´t happy with," he said. BFS found the department´s vehicles—which were used extensively in off-road applications—were fitted mostly with passenger tires.
"We found not one adjustable defect on those tires," he said. "They were just not proper for that application. We gave them credits which they used to buy special service tires from us. The ´96 thing had nothing to do with tread separations."
Mr. Lampe also announced a reversal of Bridgestone/Firestone´s stand on the 1.4 million tires mentioned in the Sept. 1 NHTSA consumer advisory. Company-owned Firestone stores and authorized dealers will inspect free of charge any of those tires that motorists bring in, and replace them free if the owners are still concerned about them.
Also, if owners of the tires choose non-Firestone replacements, the company will reimburse them up to $140 per tire, Mr. Lampe said.
This represents a return to BFS´s original policy about the consumer advisory tires, with the addition of reimbursement. While the company refused to recall the tires, at first it said it would inspect and replace them for free. But then Mr. Ono placed a letter on the company website, stating BFS would replace the tires only if they were found defective.
Committee members also asked Mr. Lampe about news reports from Tokyo that said Yoichiro Kaizaki, chairman of BFS parent firm Bridgestone Corp., was considering an overhaul of management at BFS. Mr. Lampe said he had no firsthand knowledge of Mr. Kaizaki´s intentions. "I´ll have to get back to my office and see if I still have a job," he joked.