Congress Grills Ford, Firestone Over Tire Tests

Officials from Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. suffered a grilling by Congress as the rift between the two companies over defective tires widened.

“There was something rotten in Decatur,” Rep Fred Upton, R-Mich., said at a House Commerce consumer protection subcommittee today. Most of the Firestone tires now blamed for killing 101 people between 1992 and 1999 were produced at a plant in Decatur, Ill.

Congressmen blasted Ford over using a “mule,” a F-150 pickup chassis that simulates a Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicle, to test tires. And subcommittee chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., said Firestone had a “horribly flawed” testing process, as the company didn’t trigger a recall after more than 10 of 129 tires failed 1996 tests.

“About 10 percent, one out of 10 of the production tires, fails … what was in the mind of the people of Decatur when they saw those results and failed to notify headquarters?” Tauzin said.

Ford has come under fire since Bridgestone/Firestone voluntarily recalled 6.5 million 15-inch sport utility vehicle tires on Aug. 9. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration advised consumers to replace an additional 1.4 million tires on Aug. 31. The tires under the recall, ATX, ATX-II and Wilderness AT tires, are found mostly on Ford Explorers, and investigators believe Ford knew about defects in the tires long before the recall and chose to hide it from the public.

Companies Disagree

Under the assault, the relationship between Ford and Firestone seemed to deteriorate further. Firestone executive vice president Tom Lampe repeated claims that Ford underinflated the Explorer’s tires at 26 pounds per square inch. He said Firestone wrote a letter to Ford yesterday demanding that they inflate the tires to 30 psi.

“We believe very strongly that 30 psi provides consumers with additional safety margins,” he said.

A Wall Street Journal report Wednesday also said that at 26 psi, Ford Explorers have a very small margin of safety to avoid rollovers during sharp turns when tires fail.

But Ford spokesman Jason Vines said the company won’t raise the required tire pressure. He said that Firestone warrantied the tires at 26 psi for 11 years, and that Goodyear tires on Explorers inflated to 26 psi have not shown the failure rate of the Firestone models.

“For the better of 10 years, Firestone agreed and repeatedly supported the recommended tire pressure of 26 psi,” Ford vice president Helen Petrauskas said.

Firestone on Defensive

In prepared testimony for the committee, John Lampe, executive vice president of Bridgestone/Firestone said both companies had thoroughly tested the tires and found nothing wrong.

“The testing Ford and Firestone undertook before introducing these tires was thorough and complete,” Lampe said.

He admitted that there were some defective tires, but said the company still has no idea what went wrong.

“BFS recognizes that there was a problem with a very small percentage of the recalled tires. We must and do take full responsibility for these problems,” his remarks say.

The American version of Bridgestone’s stock, which is primarily traded on the Tokyo exchange, recently recovered slightly from an eight-year low. But at $129.0987, it’s still far from the $220 level it traded at before the Aug. 9 recall.

Bridgestone Fixed Tires

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