WASHINGTON (June 15, 2001)—A pending joint House subcommittee hearing about the Ford-Firestone situation is bound to unleash a torrent of the bad blood that has built up between Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.
Already, spokesmen for Ford have told staffers at the House Energy and Commerce Committee that their boss, CEO Jacques Nasser, refuses to testify on the same panel as Bridgestone/Firestone Chairman and CEO John T. Lampe. Ironically, Mr. Lampe told Reuters that he looked forward to sitting down with Mr. Nasser and discussing their differences in the House hearing.
Announcement of the June 19 hearing—a joint effort of the Commerce and Oversight subcommittees within House Energy and Commerce—followed closely a deluge of headlines designed to widen the breach between Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford:
BFS released the results of a study performed by an Ohio State University (OSU) engineering professor, Dennis Guenther, which showed that Ford Explorers are prone to “oversteer” in the case of tire tread separations.
Plaintiffs' attorneys filed motions in Indianapolis federal district court asking Judge Sarah Evans Barker to oversee Ford's recall of 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires and order Ford to recall up to 4 million Explorers, model years 1991-2001.
Goodyear, Continental A.G. and Michelin North America Inc. all announced plans to provide millions of replacement tires each to Ford, with Goodyear saying it would provide more than half the total.
Florida's top law enforcement official—who is leading a sweeping investigation of the Ford Explorer-Firestone tire accidents—suggested the C temperature resistance grade for the Firestone Wilderness tires on the Ford Explorer indicated negligence on both companies' parts.
Ford Motor de Venezuela disputed accident statistics produced by that nation's consumer protection agency and issued its own study showing that the Ford Explorer's rollover record was tame compared with that of other sport-utility vehicles.
BFS turned over the study by OSU's Mr. Guenther to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration May 31, along with a letter from Mr. Lampe, requesting that NHTSA investigate the safety of Ford Explorers. The Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker also released the results of the Guenther study to the media.
Most highway vehicles, according to BFS publicity on the study, are designed for “understeer”—i.e. a cornering situation where the front of a vehicle turns less sharply than a driver intends. This design feature allows the average driver to retain greater control over the vehicle.
But Mr. Guenther—comparing the 1996 and 2000 Ford Explorers with the 2001 Jeep Cherokee and the 1996 Chevrolet Blazer—found that the Explorers were prone to “oversteer,” or too-sharp cornering, in the case of tread separations on a left rear tire.
“An oversteer vehicle is not safe at highway speeds in the hands of an average driver,” BFS quoted Mr. Guenther as saying. “This must be regarded as a highway safety defect within the meaning of the NHTSA's charter.”
Ford replied that “real world data” show the Explorer to be safe.
Repeated calls to Mr. Guenther's office in Columbus, Ohio, went unanswered.
NHTSA, meanwhile, gave every sign of taking its time with Bridgestone/Firestone's request. “Firestone presented us with information, but no formal petition for an investigation, and we have no idea when there will be a formal response,” an agency spokesman said. NHTSA has turned down 11 previous petitions to examine the stability of SUVs.
Mr. Lampe went to Washington to discuss the study with various government officials, and apparently it piqued the interest of House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La. On June 6, Mr. Tauzin sent a letter to NHTSA Acting Administrator Robert Shelton, asking the agency to look more closely into the role the Ford Explorer's design may have played in tread separation accidents.
“The scope of your investigation appears to have always avoided one of the key questions posed by last year's controversy: whether the problem with the Firestone tires is solely a tire issue, or whether it is a tire-vehicle application issue,” Mr. Tauzin wrote. “It is my understanding that NHTSA's current testing and analyses are either not focusing on this question at all, or not in a way that will ultimately prove statistically significant or credible.”
In Indianapolis, Judge Barker gave Ford and Firestone until June 5 to respond to the motion by plaintiffs' attorneys in personal injury suits against the two companies for Ms. Barker to take on the oversight of Ford's 13-million-tire recall. Copies of the Ford and Firestone filings could not be obtained as of June 13.
Ms. Barker—who already has more than 200 Ford-Firestone cases consolidated under her jurisdiction—hasn't yet ruled on a June 1 motion by the plaintiffs' attorneys to order the recall of 4 million Explorers. The lawyers claim the vehicles are “inherently unsafe” and can't be made safe; therefore, they want Ms. Barker to require Ford to provide either cash reimbursements or new vehicles to Explorer owners.
Ford replied that the motion was “frivolous” and that the lawyers lacked proof of their assertions.
Meanwhile, Ford contacted three major tire manufacturers to help provide replacement tires for the recall, and all three have put forth their plans to do so.
Goodyear, the first to announce its strategy, now says its plans are “on schedule” to provide more than half of the tires Ford needs. The Akron-based tire maker has stepped up production of 26 Ford-approved replacement tires tenfold and increased shipments to nearly 9,000 outlets, including independent tire dealers, Ford-Mercury dealers and company-owned stores, Goodyear said in a press release June 4.
Also on June 4, Michelin issued a news release saying it has ramped up passenger and light truck tire production more than 200 percent to help the Ford recall, as well as making replacement tires available at 11,000 points of sale. Both Goodyear and Michelin affirmed they would make replacement tires available free of charge at their outlets.
Fewer details were available about Conti's plans to supply Ford with replacement tires, but Conti said it increased production at its six North American tire plants. It also will provide Continental- and General-brand replacement tires free of charge for Wilderness tire owners who go to Ford-Mercury dealers, independent tire dealers or tire wholesalers.
Ford asserted at its May 22 press conference announcing the recall that the Goodyear Wrangler and Firestone Wilderness tires supplied as original equipment for the Explorer were made to the exact same specifications. Some observers, however, noted that the Wranglers and the Wilderness tires on the Explorer had different temperature resistance grades under the Uniform Tire Quality Grading System mandated by NHTSA. The Wilderness tires had a temperature resistance grade of C, meaning that they met minimum standards in that area under federal safety standards; the Wrangler tires had a temperature resistance grade of B, denoting a better standard of performance.
“I don't think we make any tires with a C grade in temperature resistance,” a Goodyear spokesman said.
Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who is leading an investigation by attorneys general in 38 states on the Ford-Firestone issue, said the temperature resistance rating on the Wilderness tires was one more reason, in his opinion, to consider Ford and Firestone equally at fault in the fatal rollover accidents.
“I don't know why they decided to put a C-rated tire for temperature on a vehicle like this, and a passenger tire at that, not even a light truck tire,” Mr. Butterworth told Reuters.
A Ford spokesman said the two tires were the same in the performance criteria demanded by Ford—such as traction and stopping distance—but that the temperature resistance grade was at the discretion of the tire maker.
“A C temperature grade is appropriate for a tire if it is well-manufactured and meets performance criteria,” he said.
Whatever the temperature grade was, BFS “built a tire to the specifications Ford asked,” said a spokeswoman for the Nashville-based tire maker. “At all points in the process, we made them aware of everything we were doing, and they approved it.” The BFS spokeswoman also said she wondered whether any of the replacement tires approved by Ford for the Wilderness tire had temperature resistance grades of C. The Ford spokesman said he didn't know offhand.
Ford announced early in June that its recall of 13 million Wilderness tires would include replacing tires on 23,000 Ford vehicles in Europe and 14,000 in Japan. Also on the international scene, the company released its own study based on Venezuelan government reports which shows that Ford Explorers had far fewer rollover accidents in Venezuela than at least two other SUVs.
Prepared by a former director of the Venezuelan Office of Statistics and Information, the study said 1,059 SUV-related accidents have been reported since the start of 2000, of which 8.2 percent were rollovers, according to a report in the Washington Post. Explorers were involved in only 11 percent of the rollovers, it said, whereas two unnamed SUV models were involved in 34.5 percent and 17.2 percent of the rollovers, respectively.
Of 47 reported fatalities, only two were in Explorers, the study said.
Ford's study contradicted information which Samuel Ruh Rios, head of the Venezuelan consumer protection agency INDECU, turned over to Venezuela's Office of the Prosecutor. That study, which Mr. Ruh Rios has not made public, reportedly implicates Ford Explorers in 51 rollover accidents and 37 fatalities in Venezuela.
Officials of Ford Motor de Venezuela told the Associated Press they had obtained a list of Mr. Ruh Rios' accidents from a secondary source, and denounced the list as inaccurate. Thirteen of the accidents were not rollovers, they said. Also, three didn't involve Explorers, and four were duplicate reports.