The century-long relationship between Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. unraveled Tuesday, with the two companies trading pointed charges over which is more to blame for scores of fatal accidents involving Firestone tires and Ford Explorers.
"It's like tying two cats by the tail and throwing them over the clothesline and letting them claw each other," observed Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C.
The Senate Commerce Committee hearing was the second trip to Capitol Hill in as many weeks for Ford CEO Jacques Nasser and Bridgestone/Firestone CEO Masatoshi Ono to discuss last month's recall of 6.5-million Firestone tires that can suffer blowouts and sudden loss of tread. Last week, two other congressional panels held hearings.
Nasser said Bridgestone/Firestone withheld information regarding certain tires that could have led to a quicker recall, while the tire company's officials countered that the Explorer's design played a role in the accidents.
"Last week, I listened in disbelief as senior Firestone executives not only acknowledged that Firestone had analyzed its claims data, but also identified significant patterns of tread separations as early as 1998," Nasser said. "Yet Firestone said nothing to anyone, including the Ford Motor Co.
"This is not the candid and frank dialogue that Ford expects in its business relationships."
He then announced that Explorer customers could choose another tire brand beginning with the 2002 model, which begins production in January. Firestone has been the standard brand on Explorers, the top-selling SUV.
At least 88 people have died and more than 250 have been injured in U.S. crashes involving Firestone tires, most of them on Explorers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.5-million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires last month and has replaced 2-million.
NHTSA has warned that another 1.4-million Firestone tires that the company has refused to recall are dangerous and should be replaced. The company disputes that allegation, but announced Tuesday that it will replace the tires for free if customers are concerned or will reimburse up to $140 per tire for competitors' models.
Both companies have suffered financially since the recall was announced and face the prospect of numerous lawsuits seeking many millions of dollars. Bridgestone/Firestone stock has lost nearly half its value since early August, while Ford's has eroded by about 15 percent.
At the hearing, Ono repeated in halting English the apology he gave last week, while John Lampe, the company's executive vice president, went on the attack.
"We take full responsibility, senators, when a tire fails because of a defect. We firmly believe, however, that the tire is only part of the overall safety problem shown by these tragic accidents," Lampe said.
"Federal data shows there have been over 16,000 rollovers with the Ford Explorer, causing 600 deaths," he said. "The tire failure has been involved in only a very, very small percentage of these deaths."
Lampe urged investigators to check whether Ford's recommended tire pressure of 26 pounds per square inch _ 4 pounds lighter than Bridgestone/Firestone's recommendation _ played a role in the accidents.
Ford has said the lower pressure was recommended to give motorists a smoother ride, but critics say it was to limit the possibility of a rollover.
NHTSA Administrator Sue Bailey was asked whether the problem was with Explorers or Firestone tires, or a combination.
"At this time, I think we're dealing with a tire problem, but as part of our investigation we will also explain the possibility of a combination," she said, saying the inquiry was continuing.