Ford auto workers driving Explorers circled the Capitol in a show of confidence for their company, while inside Ford CEO Jacques Nasser faced tough questioning from lawmakers on the Explorer's safety record and Ford's pick of replacement tires following a May recall.
The joint House subcommittee hearing was called to sort out claims from the two warring corporations over blame for 203 deaths and more than 700 injuries linked to blowouts of Firestone tires fitted mostly as standard equipment on the Explorer. Some of those crashes involved rollovers.
The August recall involved ATX, ATX II and 15-inch Wilderness AT tires. The May recall included all other sizes of Wilderness AT tires.
The two companies ended a nearly 100-year partnership before Ford ordered the May replacement.
The Wilderness AT has been standard equipment on the Ford Explorer, the world's best-selling sport utility vehicle. Many of the fatal accidents among the thousands of crashes reported to the highway safety administration in the last year were rollovers of the Explorer that occurred after the tires failed.
Lawmakers said congressional investigators have found that some of the Wilderness AT tires being swapped have a better claims history than replacement brands. And House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin said test results appeared insufficient.
Tauzin said congressional investigators learned that one of the tires to be used in the replacement has a claims rate of 124 per million tires, which is well in excess of the five claims per million that Ford has said is the benchmark for its replacement program expected to cost $3 billion.
The replacement tire manufacturer was not identified. Tauzin said his committee will ask NHTSA to report to Congress within 30 days on the safety of the replacement tires.
Nasser acknowledged the replacement plan may be too broad, but vigorously defended the company's commitment to safety and expressed confidence in its data and analysis that he said justified the dramatic move.
"We're taking all the tires off the Wilderness AT tires off the road," he said. "If anything, we may have overreached because of the need to install some confidence back in the marketplace. I'm hoping we've done that."
However, Firestone continues to claim that the Explorer is to blame for the accidents, not the tires.
Bridgestone/Firestone CEO John Lampe told the panel, "(Ford is) replacing perfectly safe tires."
The tiremaker has conducted its own tests of the vehicle and handed the results to federal investigators. Firestone also has been documenting rollovers in Venezuela involving non-Firestone tires. Venezuela is now considering banning the Explorer.
In one set of tests done for attorneys suing Ford, a professional driver couldn't keep control of an Explorer when the tread separated. The vehicle unexpectedly flipped, breaking the protective outriggers that were supposed to keep it stable.
"We need answers," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. "We have a corporate schoolyard brawl that has broken out here."
Nasser told the committee that, "the Ford Explorer is and always has been a safe vehicle."
"Real world data shows that the Explorer is among the safest SUVs on the market," he said.
That data continues to face challenges from victims or crashes involving the Explorer and their relatives. Just this week, Evilio Herrera filed a $1 billion suit against Firestone. His parents died in a crash on their way to Disney World.
Herrera said that after the crash, "I ask one of the guys, 'What about my father, how's he doing?' He shook his head and said, 'No man, he didn't make it.'"
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