Tire Squabble Rolls On

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Congress' attempt Tuesday to get to the truth of a rash of accidents involving Ford vehicles and Firestone tires provided another forum for the escalating feud between the two companies, reports CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

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.

Ford Hits The Skids
For Ford, the Explorer is more than just a product. It's a powerful brand and a huge profit center, reports CBS News Business Correspondent Anthony Mason.

"This is their badge product right now," said Dan Beucke of Business Week. "And to that extent it's the worst one for them to have problems with."

Hit by an economic slowdown and awash in bad publicity, Explorer sales have slid 21 percent this year. That despite Ford's redesign of the model.

"There's no doubt that the salvos that Ford is firing at Firestone and Firestone is firing at Ford confuse the buying public," said analyst Keith Crain. "And that's got to have an impact on this car, even though it's a totally different car."

Now, a federal investigation could further wound the Explorer brand. And the company's problems don't end there.

Ford's F-150 pickup, the top-selling vehicle in North America, was the worst performer in the insurance industry's recent crash tests.

In J.D. Power's recent quality rankings, Ford fell to seventh, behind its top Japanese, German and American competitors.

The tire recall itself is going to cost the company billions of dollars.

A year ago, Ford was poised to overtake GM as the top automaker. But it's market share is now falling fast. This week's edition of Business Week was headlined, "Ford: it's worse than you think."

Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires linked to blowouts in August, 2000. Last month, Ford announced it was replacing 13 million additional tires as a precautionary step because of signs the tires' failure rate waincreasing.

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.

Click here for an inside look at what makes tires work… and fail.

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.

Tire Tussle: Complete Coverage
Click here for complete coverage — stories by CBS News that peer into the Firestone tire recall.
A Transportation Department official said in written testimony delivered to Congress that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is considering an investigation of the Explorer in addition to its investigation of whether to expand the Firestone recall.

"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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