WASHINGTON-Ford and Firestone against each other. Congressmen against Ford and Firestone. Congressmen against the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Congressmen against each other.
That essentially describes the action at a joint hearing June 19 of two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees, at which committee members considered whether the design of Ford Motor Co.'s Explorer sport-utility vehicle played a role in the tread separation accidents involving Firestone tires mounted on them.
The hearing began under the onus of NHTSA's updating the death count in accidents related to Firestone tires to 203 from the previous 174. Creating even more tension was the House Energy and Commerce Committee's finding-leaked to the Washington Post and other news sources the day before-that Ford was using seven tire models as replacements for the Firestone Wilderness AT tire that had higher tread separation claims rates than the Wilderness itself.
The news leak caused particular consternation among committee Democrats, with whom Republicans had not shared the claims data or the staff analysis. Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., ranking Democrat on the committee, demanded to be supplied immediately with the data and analysis, and later threatened to release confidential information from tire makers to the press.
Confusion over whether the tread separations were strictly a tire problem or partly a vehicle problem was what motivated the hearings, according to Rep. Clifford Stearns, R-Fla., chairman of the Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection subcommittee within House Energy and Commerce.
``Unfortunately, when asked the same question, the companies respond with two different answers,'' Mr. Stearns said. ``The information presented by both Ford and Firestone is typically contradictory and incompatible.''
Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa., blasted both companies and NHTSA for allowing the issue to degenerate into ``a shouting match.''
``The role of honest broker, which is precisely the mission of NHTSA, has been surrendered to two very threatened firms whose data, even if correct, appears to have been manipulated,'' he said.
Ford CEO Jacques Nasser and John T. Lampe, chairman of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. (BFS), predictably repeated the same data they've given out previously. Meanwhile, Michael P. Jackson, deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation, tried to reassure the committee that NHTSA was indeed playing the role of honest broker.
Ford has replaced about 1 million of a projected 13 million Wilderness tires it has decided to recall, and has another 2 million replacement tires ``in the pipeline,'' Mr. Nasser told the committee. He reiterated ``real world data'' to show the Ford Explorer ``is among the safest SUVs on the market.'' He also repeated company statistics to show that Goodyear tires on the Explorer performed vastly better than Firestone tires did, with only two tread separation claims on the Goodyear tires vs. 1,183 on the Firestones.
Mr. Lampe, on the other hand, claimed Ford's testing was faulty compared with that of BFS.
``Ford took new Goodyear tires and compared them with old Firestone tires, some of which were 9 years old,'' he said. ``Ford ignored internal tire temperatures-the temperatures that matter when detecting belt separations.''
The biggest bone of contention between the two companies at the hearing was whether a vehicle manufacturer could design a vehicle so that a driver can maintain control during a tread separation.
``Vehicles aren't designed for easy handling when you lose a tread,'' said Mr. Nasser, who added it was ridiculous to suggest they could. But Mr. Lampe accused Mr. Nasser of contradicting his own testimony to NHTSA a few months before, and said that tread separations-though far from usual-are still the most common failure mode in any make of tire.
Meanwhile, the investigation of more than 50 million Firestone tires that NHTSA undertook in May 2000 should be finished by mid- to late July, Mr. Jackson told the joint subcommittees.
Mr. Jackson and other NHTSA officials assented to the request of Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., to analyze the data gathered by the committee in light of other pertinent evidence. The agency promised to give the committee its conclusions imminently.
In January, the committee set out to obtain claims data on tires that are original equipment on SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans, according to a committee spokesman. It obtained data on ``well over 100'' tire models, and found that 24 of them had tread separation claims rates of more than five per million tires-the rate Ford named as the benchmark for deciding whether to recall the Wilderness tires.
Seven of the 24 later ended up on Ford's approved list of replacement tires for the Wilderness, the spokesman said. These tires had claims rates ranging from 6.1 to 124.4 per million, compared with an aggregate rate of about nine per million for the recalled Wilderness tires.
The spokesman identified two of the tire models. One was the Goodyear Wrangler HT, size P235/75R15, with a claims rate of 13.7 per million. The Wrangler HT is original equipment on the Ford F150 pickup truck, Expedition and Bronco, he said.
The other tire-the General Grabber APXL, size P235/75R15-had a claims rate of 10.9 per million. The spokesman could not immediately identify the Grabber's OE fitments.
These figures came from NHTSA, the spokesman said. He did not divulge the identity of the tire with the claims rate of 124.4 per million, because that information came from a tire maker's confidential submission to the committee.