WASHINGTON (Sept. 27, 2000)—Ford Motor Co.´s agreeing to recommend 30 psi for original equipment tires on the Ford Explorer doesn´t signify a truce between the auto maker and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. over the current recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires.
If anything, the sniping between the two companies is getting sharper. Furthermore, documents released by the House Commerce Committee Sept. 25 show that bitterness started at least three months before the recall was announced Aug. 9.
Meanwhile, consumer advocates claim the new recommendation proves their contention that Ford and BFS always knew 26 psi was too low a pressure for those tires.
"This certainly shows there´s some culpability," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. "Ford, instead of redesigning the vehicle, chose to underinflate the tires."
Ford announced its assent to a pressure of 30 psi for the P235/75R15 tires on the Explorer Sept. 22, two days after BFS Chairman and CEO Masatoshi Ono sent a letter on the subject to Carlos Mazzorin, Ford group vice president, Global Purchasing & South America.
"Immediately prior to the recall, we had asked you to test the Explorer to determine whether an inflation pressure higher than 26 psi would be acceptable for the Explorer," Mr. Ono wrote. "After your testing, you determined that a range of 26-30 psi would be acceptable."
Nevertheless, Mr. Ono said, BFS would be more comfortable with a recommendation of 30 psi. "An inflation pressure of 30 psi provides the consumer with (an) additional 4 lbs. of safety margin, and even if one serious accident can be avoided by increasing the recommended inflation pressure, it would be well worth it," he wrote.
In agreeing to the new recommendation, however, Ford continued its public stance that all problems arising from tires on the Explorer are strictly the fault of Bridgestone/Firestone.
"We are confident that 26 psi is a safe tire pressure for the Explorer," a Ford spokesman said. "However, Firestone´s recent change in the recommended tire pressure has caused confusion for our customers.
"Firestone´s new recommendation is within the 26-30 psi range that was jointly approved when the Firestone recall was announced," the spokesman added. "This should help eliminate confusion among our customers."
The reaction of a BFS spokeswoman to the Ford statement showed just how much Ford´s position rankles the tire maker.
"There is a vehicle issue here as well," the spokeswoman said. "Ford is putting all the blame on Bridgestone/Firestone, and is not addressing the question of the role that vehicle design may have played."
The tire-vs.-vehicle issue already was a sore point between BFS and Ford in May, when officials of Ford Motor de Venezuela and Bridgestone Firestone Venezolana S.A. were debating what to do about tire failures on Ford Explorers in that country.
In a May 4, 2000 letter provided by BFS to House Commerce, Jorge A. Gonzalez of BFVZ told Emmanuel Cassingena, president of Ford Motor de Venezuela, that his company would agree to a tire replacement program "provided that the tires will be fitted on any vehicle on which the suspension has been modified."
But in a meeting the next day between BFVZ and Ford officials, Mr. Cassingena "was very strong and rude" and said "that under no circumstances he will accept a statement that their Explorer has suspension problems," according to a May 9 memo by BFVZ legal counsel Ana Cecelia Colmenarez.
BFVZ in turn rejected Mr. Cassingena´s insistence that the Wilderness tire alone was responsible for problems in Venezuela, "indicating that a good number of accidents have taken place with tires other than BFVZ tires and that they have been modifying their Explorers´ suspension," Mr. Colmenarez wrote.
Later, after the U.S. recall began, Ford argued that the Venezuelan Wilderness tires had not been built with an extra nylon ply that Ford has specified. BFS admitted to mismarking some of the tires as having the extra ply, but not to making defective tires in Venezuela.
The issue of tire pressure has been a major topic of controversy since the recall began. Consumer advocates and members of Congress have accused Ford of deliberately recommending a low inflation pressure for the tires to decrease the chance of rollover in the Explorers, and BFS of accepting a low pressure to keep Ford´s business.
BFS does not deny signing off on 26 psi in 1989, when the Explorer was being readied for public sale. "But in hindsight, maybe it´s something we´d want to reconsider," said John Lampe, BFS executive vice president, at a Sept. 12 press conference.