By TIMOTHY AEPPEL, STEPHEN POWER and MILO GEYELIN
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., in a sharp break from its biggest customer,
moved to back Ford Motor Co. into a corner by urging the auto maker
to boost the recommended tire pressure on its popular Explorer in the
name of consumer safety.
In a strongly worded letter,
Bridgestone/Firestone's chairman and chief
executive, Masatoshi Ono, asked Ford to
recommend its Explorer tires be inflated to 30
pounds a square inch (or psi), four pounds
greater than Ford's original recommendation. The letter was sent to
Carlos Mazzorin, Ford's group vice president, global purchasing.
Bridgestone/Firestone is a unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp.
John Lampe, Firestone's executive vice president, added in testimony
before the House Commerce Committee that Ford's recommendation of
26 psi leaves an inadequate margin of safety and "appears to be a
serious part of the problem we are now facing."
The House committee is investigating Firestone's recall of 6.5 million
tires that allegedly have been linked to 101 deaths on U.S. highways in
the past decade. Most of the recalled tires are mounted on Ford's
Explorer sport utility vehicle.
Ford has repeatedly defended the safety of the Explorer, saying the
problem is with the tires. But Firestone's challenge creates a dilemma
for Ford. If Ford boosts the recommended tire pressure to 30 psi to
reduce heat buildup and help prevent the tread and belt separations on
the tires, then the Explorer would have harsher handling. Moreover, in
the past, Ford engineers have expressed concerns that higher
pressures could lead to a higher rollover risk. When Ford came out with
the Explorer in 1990, it picked the 26 psi pressure, because engineers
had determined that a lower pressure enhanced the Explorer's stability.
Ford spokesman Ken Zino said that for now, Ford doesn't intend to
alter its stance that Explorer tires are safe inflated within a range
between 26 and 30 psi. At 30 psi, the current Explorer, which has
undergone suspension modifications since its debut in 1990, doesn't
pose a greater rollover risk, Mr. Zino said: "None, whatsoever."
Mr. Zino added that Ford officials will ask Firestone why they changed
their position on the inflation issue after years of accepting Ford's
recommended tire pressure.
'If One Serious Accident Can Be Avoided'
Immediately prior to the recall, we had asked you to test the Explorer
to determine whether an inflation pressure higher than 26 psi would be
acceptable for the Explorer ... we have recommended an inflation
pressure of 30 psi. Ford has consistently stated that an inflation
pressure in the range of 26-30 psi was acceptable ... we urge you to
inform all Explorer owners that the proper inflation pressure for
P235/75R15 tires on the Explorer is 30 psi. An inflation pressure of 30
psi provides the consumer with additional 4 lbs of safety margin, and,
even if one serious accident can be avoided by increasing the
recommended inflation pressure, it would be well worth it. Please
strongly consider our recommendation.
-- Excerpt from Bridgestone/Firestone Chairman Masatoshi Ono's Sept.
20 letter to Ford
The strong suggestion that Ford change the tire pressure was a clear
attempt by Firestone to lay a portion of the responsibility for the deaths
and injuries onto Ford and its Explorer. "Let me be very clear: We could
remove every one of our tires from the Explorer, and rollovers and
serious accidents will continue," Mr. Lampe told the House committee.
Ford executives also came under fire from Rep. Billy Tauzin (R., La.) for
submitting a sworn affidavit that indicated the company tested the
recalled tires at recommended inflation levels on a Ford Explorer.
In fact, the company conceded, the tests were conducted on a light
truck whose weight was adjusted to simulate how an Explorer would
Ford's Mr. Zino said the vehicles used in the tests mirrored the
performance characteristics of the Explorer.
Firestone didn't escape unscathed either, acknowledging that it made
design changes in its recalled tires after tests at its Decatur, Ill., plant in
1996 showed a high number of the recalled series failing during
high-speed tests two years earlier. During questioning, Mr. Lampe said
Firestone changed the wedge on 100 lines of tires in March 1998 to
improve the cushion between the belts and help reduce belt separation.
Essentially, the company increased the thickness of a narrow strip of
rubber sandwiched between the edges of the two steel belts inside the
tire. "It's an added piece of insulation, because that's the area of the
tire that's exposed to the most stress," said a Firestone spokeswoman.
'You Told No One About It'
Although the company denied the changes were related to the test
results, lawmakers questioned why federal regulators weren't notified
about the tests. "You were producing bad tires. You told no one about
it," Rep. Tauzin said.
Firestone executives said the tests were designed to push the tires
beyond their limits and that the company continually "retests" failed
tires until they meet guidelines approved by the Society of Automotive
Engineers. The company's executives didn't specify what steps they
took to make sure the tires actually met those standards. According to
congressional investigators, one out of every 10 tires tested at the
Decatur facility in 1996 failed.
In sharp back-and-forth testimony, Ford and Firestone executives
clashed over tire pressure. "We are not vehicle experts and cannot
know what impact various pressure settings will have on the vehicle as a
whole," Mr. Lampe said. "Running an Explorer at low tire pressures,
overloaded, particularly in hot climates appears to be a serious part of
Ford's vice president for environment and safety engineering, Helen O.
Petrauskas, shot back: "The documents we submitted over and over
and over again demonstrate that over a 10-year period Ford and
Firestone supported 26 pounds per square inch. The Explorer performs
just fine on Goodyears at 26 psi. The Explorer performs just fine on
Wilderness tires not built at Decatur" when they are inflated to 26 psi.
Mr. Lampe's finger-pointing at Ford surprised some plaintiffs lawyers,
because Ford documents indicate the two companies worked closely
testing the Explorer's design and tire configuration for handling and
stability before the vehicle's release. Indeed, Firestone's Advanced
Engineering division performed the final safety tests for Ford under
Ford's direction, using its own advanced computer-simulated
engineering system with software supplied by the car company,
according to a copy of the report.
Write to Timothy Aeppel at firstname.lastname@example.org, Stephen Power at
email@example.com and Milo Geyelin at firstname.lastname@example.org