By JOSEPH B. WHITE and CLARE ANSBERRY
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. did an abrupt U-turn Friday and said it
would recommend that owners of Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles
inflate their 15-inch Firestone tires to 30 pounds per square inch
instead of 26 pounds.
Ford said its decision to change its decade-old
26-psi-tire-inflation standard for the Explorer
was a move to counter confusion among
customers after strong statements last week by
tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. that
Explorer tires should be inflated to 30 psi. Firestone officials said the
Explorer has a diminished margin of safety with tires inflated to Ford's
original 26-psi specification. On Aug. 9, Ford modified its original
specification for Explorer 15-inch tires to a range between 26 and 30
But one lawyer active in litigation against auto makers and tire
producers said Ford also risked a heightened liability risk if it clung to
the 26-psi recommendation in the face of Firestone's warnings.
"Given the fact that Firestone has come forward and basically admitted
that Ford's recommended air pressure of 26 pounds is a contributing
factor to tread separation, Ford will face increased responsibility if they
continue to recommend air pressure in the range of 26 pounds," said
Tab Turner, a plaintiffs attorney in Little Rock, Ark., who specializes in
rollover and tire-tread-separation lawsuits. Ford Vice President for
Communications Jason Vines said Sunday that legal concerns weren't
the reason Ford's top management changed course.
"There's a lot of confusion out there," Mr. Vines said. He said Ford will
notify Explorer owners of the new recommendation either through
advertisements or letters or both. Ford isn't changing its recommended
26-psi inflation standard for Goodyear tires used on Explorers, Mr.
Vines said. "Goodyear tested, certified and warranted their tires at 26,"
and still does, he said. Ford has asked Firestone to provide data backing
up its assertions that 26 psi isn't adequate, he said.
The clash between Ford and Firestone over tire pressure highlights the
growing rift between the two companies as each tries to shift blame to
the other for tread-separation-rollover accidents involving
Firestone-equipped Explorers. Bridgestone/Firestone on Aug. 9 recalled
6.5 million Firestone Wilderness AT, ATX and ATX II P235/75R15, and
federal safety regulators are investigating a broader range of Firestone
The government has tallied 101 deaths related to sudden tread
separation in Firestone tires. In an environment of heightened concern
about tire safety, the government also is looking into reports of
problems with certain 16-inch Continental General Tire Inc. tires used on
Ford's Lincoln Navigator. Continental has announced a voluntary recall
of about 160,000 Navigator tires. A separate inquiry is under way into
reports of problems with tires made by Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.
In its fight to minimize damage to its highly profitable Explorer from
Firestone debacle, Ford has argued that the tread failures and accidents
are entirely the fault of defects in the design and manufacture of
Firestone tires, particularly those made at Firestone's Decatur, Ill., plant.
Ford said test data from Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. indicate that tire
pressure would have to decline into "the low teens" before significant
"tire degradation" could be expected.
But congressional investigators and Bridgestone/Firestone officials have
pointed to other evidence that the causes of the tread separations
could be more complex than just defective tires. Ford engineers
developing the original Explorer in 1989 documented concerns that a
prototype Explorer demonstrated a higher risk of rolling over if the tires
were inflated to 30 psi or higher, and recommended 26 psi as a partial
antidote to handling and ride-comfort problems. That is a lower
pressure than used on many other SUVs, although Mr. Vines said Ford
knows of about 16 other vehicles, including SUVs, that use similar-size
tires at 26 psi. In general, the higher the air pressure, the more weight
tires can carry and the longer they can run safely at high speeds.
Mr. Vines said Sunday that Ford has tested Explorers with tires inflated
to 30 psi, and that all production vehicles should be safe. The Explorer's
overall rate of rollover-related fatalities is 19% less than the average for
similar vehicles, Ford says.
For a decade, Firestone signed off on Ford's lower recommended
pressure, which is within industry standard guidelines. But last
Thursday, Bridgestone/Firestone Executive Vice President John Lampe
told a congressional subcommittee that Explorers with tires inflated to
26 psi didn't have an adequate margin of safety in high-speed,
"Running an Explorer at low tire pressure, overloaded, particularly in
climates, appears to be a serious part of the problem we are now
facing," Mr. Lampe said. "We believe very strongly that 30 psi provides
the consumer with additional safety margin; at 30 psi, the Explorer can
handle higher speeds and over 400 pounds greater load than at 26 psi."
If tread separations start to occur at 20 psi, and the recommended
pressure is 26, the tires can lose only six pounds before problems begin
to develop. The normal tire loses between one and 1.5 pounds each
month, Firestone officials have said.
Masatoshi Ono, chief executive of Bridgestone/Firestone, a unit of
Japan's Bridgestone Corp., wrote a letter to Ford's global purchasing
chief, Carlos Mazzorin, urging that Ford adopt a 30-psi standard.
After Mr. Lampe's public statements, Ford officials, including Vice
President for Environmental and Safety Engineering Helen Petrauskas,
told House subcommittee members that Ford saw no reason to change
its stance that Explorers were safe with tires inflated to a range of 26 to
Again early Friday, a Ford spokesman said the company wasn't changing
its position. But late Friday, Ford disclosed that Mr. Mazzorin had
written a letter stating Ford would adopt the 30 psi recommendation.
Ford Chief Executive Officer Jacques Nasser told employees about the
decision in an e-mail message sent out about 5 p.m. Saturday,
according to a copy of the message.
In his letter to Mr. Ono, Mr. Mazzorin wrote: "We think the media
attention generated by your recent testimony regarding tire pressure
has caused confusion among our customers. In these trying times
surrounding the Firestone tire recall, it is important to eliminate this
confusion for our customers." He asserted again that 26 psi was a safe
Firestone said Ford sent two letters, the first saying that Ford wouldn't
change its recommendation on psi. The next day, the second letter
came saying the auto maker would change its recommendation.
Firestone said it couldn't comment on Ford's thinking but was pleased
the car maker listened to Firestone's recommendation.
"We are very grateful that Ford is taking this extra step to ensure
customer safety,'' Firestone said. ''We believe this recommendation is in
the best interest of everyone. We will continue to support the
recommendation of 30 psi and hope that Ford will take the extra step of
conveying this information to all of its Explorer customers with the
P235/75r15 tires," Firestone said.
Separately, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is
considering opening an investigation into possible problems with tires
made by Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., an official who spoke on condition
of anonymity confirmed. NHTSA has learned of lawsuits involving
multiple deaths and injuries allegedly caused by accidents involving tread
separation on Cooper tires. But the official also said the agency has
received similar information about other tire makers -- not just
Firestone and Cooper -- and that it was impossible to assess the
likelihood that these complaints would lead to investigations. "There's
an increase in information of all kinds," the official said. "We've
heightened the public's awareness of complaint databases and hot lines,
and people are taking advantage of that."
--Milo Geyelin contributed to this article.
Write to Joseph B. White at firstname.lastname@example.org and Clare Ansberry