By STEPHEN POWER and JOSEPH B. WHITE
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- Ford Motor Co. documents indicate that company
officials had data that Firestone tires installed on Explorer sport-utility
vehicles had little or no margin for safety in top-speed driving at the tire
pressures Ford recommended.
The papers were part of a collection of
documents that congressional investigators
released late Monday ahead of Tuesday's third
round of congressional hearings investigating
Ford's and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s handling
of tire failure problems now linked to more than 130 deaths in the U.S.
and other countries. Ford spokesman Ken Zino said company officials
hadn't had time to sort through all the documents and to prepare
detailed responses. But he disputed some of the information in the
papers and said it was unclear whether other data were contained in
draft or final versions of the documents.
The documents raise questions about Ford's position that accidents
involving the Explorer and Firestone tires aren't related to Ford's
recommended tire pressure for the Explorer. Ford had recommended
that Explorer tires in the U.S. be inflated to 26 pounds a square inch,
while Firestone has recommended 30. Ford has since updated its
recommendation to a range of 26 to 30. A lower inflation level can
exacerbate heat buildup in a tire, which could lead to tire disintegration.
But it isn't known whether tire pressure is the cause of failure of the
recalled Firestone tires.
A congressional staffer said that at Tuesday's Senate Commerce
Committee hearing, Chairman John McCain (R., Ariz.) and other
lawmakers are likely to press Ford Chief Executive Jacques Nasser and
Bridgestone/Firestone Chief Executive Masatoshi Ono about why they
didn't alert the public and regulators to accidents involving the tires
sooner. Bridgestone/Firestone is a unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp.
One memorandum, dated May 24, 2000, and titled "Firestone
Wilderness AT Tire/Venezuela, Colombia & Ecuador," cites "low inflation
operating" and "extended repeated use at high speed in high ambient
temperatures" as root causes for tread separations linked to fatal
accidents in those countries.
A chart submitted by Ford to the House Commerce Committee shows
the company's Explorer SUV, equipped with 15-inch Firestone tires with
a top speed rating of 106 miles an hour, actually would be safe only up
to 100 mph when inflated to 28 pounds a square inch. The memo
further adds that the top speed could safely be maintained only for a
short time, while many drivers ran at top speed for hours. Inflating the
same tires to 30 pounds a square inch increased the tire's safety
margin to 108 mph -- two mph more than the Explorer's maximum
speed at the time.
Separately, a draft memorandum about Firestone tire-tread separation
problems in Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries,
dated July 8, 1999, states that "FoV (Ford of Venezuela) recommends a
lower tire pressure than we do (to improve skate) and vehicle is driven
... at [maximum velocity] for long distances with these 'under-inflated'
Mr. Zino, the Ford spokesman, said Monday evening this statement was
incorrect, and was therefore removed from a final memo on the
Venezuela matter. Ford in May began replacing Firestone tires in
Venezuela with heavier-duty Goodyear truck tires that have a
recommended inflation of 32 pounds a square inch, he said.
The July 8, 1999, document also says that a third-row seat added to
vehicles sold in the Middle East "puts added loading into the tire, thus
generating more heat in addition to the high ambient operating
conditions and possible high vehicle speeds. These all add up to
speeding up the destruction of the tire internally." Mr. Zino said he
didn't have enough information on this point to comment.
But Ford will face tough questions from congressional investigators on
this point and others raised in company papers. Firestone officials have
told investigators that as a result of accidents in Venezuela in which
treads separated from their tires, the company agreed last year to
install a nylon cap and -- with Ford's blessing -- to raise the tires'
recommended pounds per square inch to 30, said Ken Johnson,
spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin (R., La.).
"This latest information only confirms our suspicion that both
companies knew a hell of a lot more than they're willing to admit," Mr.
Johnson said. "If the issue of tire pressure is a red herring as Ford
contends, then why did Ford suddenly do an about-face in Venezuela
and agree to raise the recommended psi? Why correct a problem if
there is not problem as Ford insisted."
John Rappleye, a Firestone spokesman, said he wasn't familiar with the
Ford documents but contradicted Mr. Johnson's assertion that
Firestone had persuaded Ford to increase tire pressure on Explorers in
Venezuela. "In Venezuela, Firestone has always recommended 32 psi for
the Ford Explorer," he said. "As far as I know, the recommendation
from Ford has always been 28 psi."
Mr. Johnson said investigators haven't determined how the tires' safety
margin is calculated but said the chart suggests "a direct correlation
between these horrific accidents and the disagreement between the
companies over recommended tire pressure." He said the committee is
considering holding another hearing soon on tire safety and has asked
the companies to provide all test data they have concerning tires
covered by last month's recall.
"We're going to give them a few more days before we go knocking on
their doors with subpoenas," Mr. Johnson said. "This is like pulling teeth
from someone who doesn't want to lose them."
Tuesday's congressional hearing also will include testimony from Sue
Bailey, the new administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration, and from Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater. Mr.
Slater was criticized by some lawmakers at last week's hearings for
sending Dr. Bailey to testify in his place just three weeks into her tenure
at the agency.
Also at the hearing, Bridgestone/Firestone said it will make a statement
regarding a consumer advisory by the NHTSA to extend the recall to
include an additional 1.4 million Firestone tires. The company declined to
say what position it would take regarding the advisory.
-- Tim Aeppel contributed to this article.