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Fleets to Tire Dealers: Give Me Super Savings

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He doesn’t like to talk about his experiences with super wide tires very much. “Gives me a competitive advantage over my competition,” he says.

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But Jimmy Ray, maintenance manager for Mesilla Valley Transportation in New Mexico, is one of a growing band of fleet converts. The 600 tractors and 1,500 trailers he oversees used to run exclusively on traditional drive and trailer duals. Now, 300 tractor/trailer combinations sport 10 tires instead of 18.

“I’m buying Michelin X-Ones for fuel mileage and fewer flats,” Ray says, ®not necessarily for weight savings, although that is a plus. On my tractors, I®™m picking up 2.5/10ths per mile, and 3.5/10ths on my trailers. With the price of fuel nearing $2 a gallon, that®™s big.®

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Build it and they will come? The trucking industry has never operated that way. Innovation is slow and comes only when there is a demonstrable dollars-and-cents benefit. Even then, it moves at a snail’s pace.

But that may be changing. Now, more than ever before, fleets are looking to their vendors for ways to rein in quickly rising operating costs.

“It’s good my vendors are waking up and giving me new product choices,” says Brent Hilton, service manager for Maverick Transport in North Little Rock, Ark. His tire dealer hooked him up with super wides in January, and so far, the results have been positive.

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A third of his fleet’s 902 tractors have X-Ones on the drive axles, resulting in a 2% to 3% gain in fuel economy for the steel and lumber hauler.

“And we’re able to haul 600 pounds more payload,” says Hilton. ®There were times when our drivers were slightly overloaded and couldn®™t carry a full load of fuel to make scale weight. That doesn®™t happen anymore.®

When they hit the market four years ago, super wide drive and trailer radials were a curiosity most “experts” claimed would never fly. After all, how could a single 445/50R22.5 replace a dual set of 11R22.5s? There were upfront conversion costs to consider. And, what would happen if the single tire blew out?

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Michelin North America brought super wides to the market in 2000, and it worked extensively with its dealer network to gain test positions on dozens of fleets. Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire (BFNAT) followed with its own product – Greatec. Both X-One and Greatec have seen success in Europe, where super wides gained quick acceptance.

Goodyear has displayed its super wide at events over the past few years but is still not in production. Others claim to be working on their own versions, but nothing has come to fruition.

Super Wides Defined

While some tiremakers describe super wides as “next generation wide base tires,” the two tires are related only by inference. Traditional wide base tires, sometimes referred to as super singles, first arrived in the early 1980s. Tiremakers tried to roll them onto fleet wheel positions, but they ended up consigned to concrete mixers and heavy construction trucks.

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This new generation, sporting a brawny 18.5-inch tread width, is an entirely different beast, requiring its own descriptive name – “super wide.”

More Payload, Less Fuel

While there is a laundry list of performance benefits possible with super wides, tiremakers say, tire dealers and their fleet customers quickly latched onto the potential for greater load capacity and fuel economy.

“The two key benefits are clearly fuel and weight savings,” says Michael Burroughes, product portfolio manager for Michelin Americas Truck Tires. ®In terms of rolling resistance (i.e. fuel efficiency) the X-One XDA (drive tire) is indexed at 100, compared to a conventional dual tire, which is indexed at a less fuel efficient 111. The X-One HT (trailer tire) indexes at 136, compared to a less fuel efficient conventional dual at 160.®

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Converting the standard 16 drive and trailer axle tires on a tractor/trailer combo to eight super wides, says Michelin, not only saves some 1,000 pounds of valuable weight, its X-Ones deliver substantially less rolling resistance and, as a result, measurable fuel savings of 4% to 10%.

Engineering manager Guy Walenga says BFNAT sees super wides readily taking off in tanker and bulk carrier applications, in which owners can see revenue-producing loads jump 600 to 1,000 pounds per vehicle. “Fuel efficiency gains of 2% to 5% on top of that are pure gravy,” he says.

Goodyear, which plans to launch its 445/45R22.5 entry in early 2005, has some reservations about the fuel efficiency claims being made by its competition. Will today’s super wide tires save fuel? “Yes,” says Al Cohn, commercial tire technical marketing manager for Goodyear. ®But how much is still open to speculation.®

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Cohn feels there are too many variables – from driving habits to fuel burn rates to traffic conditions to aerodynamic kits ®“ that preclude any rock-solid fuel economy claims. “The only way for fleets to determine if going wide base is right for them is to put pencil to paper and ask their local tire professionals the right questions.”

“Every fleet in existence must face its own unique purchasing decisions every day,” says Walenga. ®Buying into this technology will take a conscious decision on its part.®

Still, commercial tire innovation starts and ends with the servicing tire dealer, not engineering staffs. If a dealer can’t convince a fleet to move to a new product, that product – regardless how significant the manufacturer says it is ®“ won®™t get out of the blocks.

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The growing success of super wides in the North American market is 100% attributable to the strong relationships dealers have with their fleet customers. The new products earned test positions with dozens of fleets and earned their stripes by delivering what was promised – and then some.

Cost/Benefit

The payback issue comes with its own set of math problems, though, and is another area where dealers have to work closely with their fleet customers. Depending on whom you talk to, converting to super wides comes with a cost, which most tiremakers say is nominal and most tire dealers feel is a wash.

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The real cost of conversion is directly linked to the price of new 14×22.5 aluminum wheels, which, as recently as a year ago, were selling for $500 to $550 a copy.

Now that several aluminum wheel makers are vying for the business, that same wheel fetches $350 to $375. That means an immediate changeover investment of at least $2,600 to convert from 16 conventional wheels to eight super wide wheels.

Then there are the tires themselves. And prices are a strict secret. BFNAT’s Walenga offered that the price difference between a Greatec 445/50R22.5 and a Bridgestone 425/65R22.5 was “about a wash.” Tire to tire, a super wide is at least twice the cost of a premium 11R22.5.

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Goodyear’s Cohn offers that the cost of one new 445/50R22.5 and an accompanying aluminum wheel is 20% to 30% less expensive than buying two new conventional tires and two steel wheels.

In terms of ROI on the tire/wheel investment, Walenga figures bulk carriers will see an almost immediate return, more on the basis of weight savings than on tire/wheel cost. “These carriers will pick up a free load, pure gravy, after 20-25 trips. No matter how it’s calculated, one load is free, and that looks good on the books.”

Fleets look at the potential savings with super wides in different ways. Jeff Musselman, maintenance director for Smith Transport in Roaring Springs, Pa., considers cost per pound for all of his weight-saving devices.

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“These are the cheapest weight-saving devices I can buy,” he says. ®X-Ones cost me $2 or $3 a pound to save weight. Aluminum axle housings cost me more than $12 a pound, aluminum frame rails $10 a pound and lightweight brake drums $6 a pound.® More than half of his 750 tractors sport X-Ones, and 150 of his 2,000 trailers have super wides.

Other Premium Perks

And dealers help fleets see other benefits, as well, many of which come back to driver comfort and road safety.

Mesilla Valley Transportation’s Ray says his drivers appreciate the ride comfort. And Ray appreciates the reduction in work. Instead of having to check pressures on 18 tires, his crew only has to check 10. “And with a single tire, we don®™t have to worry about matching duals.”

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“Our drivers like these tires because they can ride inside the edges of the old road grooves, helping to smooth out the ride,” says Musselman of Smith Transport, who has also watched his fuel efficiency climb from 6.0 to 6.3 miles per gallon.

Owner/operator Bob Hawkins from Painesville, Ohio, runs a single Kenworth T800 and three trailers. He uses super wides across the board. “Since the switch, my ride has improved, brake cooling has improved and when I inspect my drive axle tires, I can see a whole lot more than I could with duals. That’s because my line of sight isn’t impaired by an inside dual. Even better, I no longer need extended hoses or chucks to air an inside dual.”

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Despite driver and fleet concerns about flats, Maverick Transport’s Hilton is particularly pleased that, in five months, his 300 tractors have suffered just three blowouts, down 75% from previous levels. Similar reliability reports came from other fleets.

Inflation Program a Must

Everyone agrees that a strong inflation pressure check system must be in place by any fleet that chooses to run super wides.

“The importance of an iron-clad inflation program cannot be understated,” Walenga says. ®Think of it this way: When one tire goes down, it’s like having two go down.®

Goodyear’s Cohn looks at it another way. “This new generation 445 size is not double the width of two 11R22.5s,” he says. ®A pair of 11R22.5s represents 10.8 inches of tread width each, or 21.6 inches together. A 445 single measures about 18 inches wide, or about 83% the width of two duals. That®™s another reason why air pressure is so critical.

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“If the tire is supposed to be inflated to 120 psi, you gotta be there. You can’t be down 10% or 15%. You®™ve got to be right at 120 psi. Heat generation on one of these new tires will kill the casing,” he says.

A Force For Change

With the volatility of diesel prices today, some fleets would practically kill for a savings of a few 10ths of a gallon in their cost/mile calculations. So, why aren’t more of them running toward the new 50-series technology?

“Because that’s not the way it works with new technology in this business,” says Walenga. ®It never is.® Part of that reluctance goes straight to the fact that these tires have only been in the marketplace in any significant way for about four years.

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While he sees potential for line-haul fleets, Walenga knows it will take time for tiremakers and their dealers to educate fleets and drivers.

“This is very good science at work,” he says. ®Yet, in the face of our enthusiasm, fleets are just as deliberate as we are. That’s where we see the independent dealer playing a major role.®

Burroughes, Cohn and Walenga agree; there are plenty of opportunities for tire dealers to step in and be the driving force for change. And it’s not just about convincing fleets of the dollars-and-cents comparison.

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“Dealers need to spread the word that drivers will make more money if the fleet owner is making more money,” says Walenga. ®Change can happen, but only if drivers buy into the single tire concept and care for their tires. Tire dealers can talk the talk with these guys and be of real service to fleets and drivers.®

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