WASHINGTON (June 20, 2001) — Ford Motor Co. CEO Jacques Nasser told law makers Tuesday that his company will immediately stop using some replacement tires if there is credible evidence they are less safe than the Firestone tires being replaced.
Mr. Nasser made the commitment during his three hours of testimony before two subcommittees of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Additionally, a Transportation Department official said U.S. auto safety regulators may open an investigation into the Ford Explorer and also that they will complete a probe of Firestone tires sooner than expected.
The hearing had been expected to be the latest round in the unprecedented war between Ford and its former longtime tire supplier Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.
But information released by committee Republicans that suggested some replacement tires may have adjustment claims rates higher than some of the 13 million Firestone tires Ford is replacing led instead to an extended fight between GOP law makers and Democrats on the committee. Nasser told the committee that 1 million tires had been replaced so far.
Reps. Bart Stupak and John Dingell, both Michigan Democrats, complained that the release of partial and possibly misleading information about replacement tires could further confuse the public and even damage innocent tire companies.
Democrats also didn´t like finding out about the claims data from the media. Mr. Nasser didn´t either.
"The first time we heard about it was when we read about it in the newspaper this morning," Mr. Nasser said.
Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., whose staff was the source of the stories, said he wants the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to have 30 days to evaluate the significance of the claims data before making them public.
Mr. Nasser said he was ready to act "in 30 minutes, not 30 days" if there is reason to believe some replacement tires are substandard.
Ford is spending about $3 billion to replace 13 million Firestone tires, on Ford Explorers and other company products, because the auto maker says its internal investigation found the tires are failing and will fail at unacceptably high rates.
The action, following a recall of 6.5 million tires last year, prompted Firestone to "fire" Ford as a customer and to allege that something is wrong with the Explorer, causing it to roll over when a tire tread separates.
On Monday, NHTSA said the death toll linked to Firestone blowouts had climbed to 203, from 174 since the last update in February. More than 700 people have been injured. Some of the crashes included rollovers.
That dispute over who is responsible was renewed at the Tuesday hearing.
Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa., chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said at the outset that both companies appear to have manipulated data to support their claims.
Several law makers chastised NHTSA for failing to act faster as a referee and thereby allowing the dispute to become "a corporate schoolyard brawl."
Most House members on the committee agreed that NHTSA had to complete its investigation into Firestone tires and help end confusion over contradictory data being released by Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone. Mr. Tauzin accused both companies of skewing some of the data for their benefit.
In one case, Mr. Tauzin said, Ford misrepresented laboratory tests in which the auto maker pitted Firestone tires against Goodyear tires. He said congressional investigators found that Ford tested a larger percentage of old and used Firestone tires.
Mr. Nasser said the tests were an "apples to apples" comparison.
"NHTSA needs to ride into the rescue here," Mr. Tauzin said.
To that end, Michael Jackson, deputy transportation secretary, said NHTSA will conduct an analysis to see if a defect investigation of the Explorer is warranted. Mr. Jackson said the department will release its findings sometime this summer.
Bridgestone/Firestone called for such an investigation early this month.
Mr. Jackson also said NHTSA´s investigation into whether to expand last year´s recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires - many fitted as standard equipment on Ford´s popular sport-utilities - will close earlier than expected. Testing will be completed by the end of next week and results announced in a month.
Firestone Chief Executive John Lampe, appearing after Mr. Nasser, said his company took responsibility in last August´s recall of 6.5 million 15-inch ATX and certain Wilderness tires mostly fitted on Explorers, and said the Ford replacement plan was a tactic to divert attention from the SUV.
"You can take all our tires off the Ford Explorer and it would continue to roll over."In written testimony, Mr. Lampe told the committee, "There is something wrong with the Ford Explorer."
Citing his company´s own data, Mr. Lampe said the same Firestone tires were used on the Explorer and the Ranger pick-up. He said claims were eight times higher on the Explorer than the Ranger. He also cited Bridgestone/Firestone data that show the Explorer is prone to roll over when a tread separates.
"The loss of tread or air in a tire shouldn´t cause a driver to lose control. The driver should be able to pull over, not roll over," Mr. Lampe said in the statement.
Questioned about the assumption, Mr. Nasser disputed the notion that the Explorer is more prone to rollover accidents after tread separation. In most cases, Mr. Nasser said, the vehicle can pull over safely. He added that Ford engineers hadn´t designed the SUV to handle a tread separation because treads aren´t supposed to separate.
The hearing took place amid an increasingly strange public relations war between Ford and Firestone forces. Hundreds of Ford Explorers, driven to Washington by members of the United Auto Workers union to demonstrate support for the vehicle and the company, added to the normal gridlock on streets near the Capitol.
And dozens of nattily dressed Ford dealers, also in town to show support, jockeyed for sitting or standing room in the jammed hearing room.
Mr. Stoffer writes for Automotive News, a sister publication of Tire Business. Automotive News staff writer John D. Stoll and Reuters contributed to this report.