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Looming Mandate: Without Help, Dealers Face Dark Future. How Will You Cope?

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To many in the tire industry, TPMS is a four-letter acronym that is quickly becoming a four-letter word. That goes for retail dealers and, soon, consumers alike. But these people are only considering the hassles involved with servicing tire/wheel assemblies featuring these gizmos.

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Look a little deeper, and you’ll see the potential for independent tire dealers to be big losers in a massive technology shift they can’t control and can only hope to survive – unless they get significant help.

The way the TPMS table is tilted now, the tire industry is on the low end, staring up at an auto industry that controls the system design, deployment and, more importantly, aftermarket service. OEM control threatens to close the door on those that cannot keep up with the information and tools necessary to deal successfully with the wide array of tire pressure monitoring systems that are showing up on more and more passenger vehicles.

In case you have been exiled on a deserted island for the past couple of years, you’ll know that TPMS stands for “tire pressure monitoring system,” and most tire and auto industry observers and participants realize that TPMSs are here to stay – regardless of the confusing state of government regulations.

TPMSs are the result of a TREAD Act mandate requiring such devices on all new passenger vehicles. The TREAD Act stated that TPMS regs were to be in place by October 2003, but various fits and starts – including trips to federal court – have slowed the process.

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As the most current regulations – issued this past April – stipulate, all passenger vehicles with a gross vehicle weight (GVW) under 10,000 pounds must be equipped with a TPMS that alerts the driver if one of the tires is 25% underinflated. As currently defined, the standard is being phased in, beginning with the new cars of 2006 – 20% in compliance by Oct. 5; 70% by Sept. 1, 2006; and 100% by Sept. 1, 2007 (model year 2008).

NHTSA’s original rule stated that automakers could use either “direct” or “indirect” systems (See sidebar, pg. 43). A successful lawsuit by Public Citizen and other consumer groups forced NHTSA to change its mind, and a new proposal allowed for only direct systems, which are considered to be more precise.

Oddly, NHTSA changed its mind again, issuing final rules earlier this year that allow the rather questionable indirect systems to be used.

For automakers, indirect TPMSs are a matter of economics; they are far cheaper. Automakers can spend less money by installing indirect TPMSs on the two-thirds of vehicles that are currently equipped with anti-lock brakes and put direct TPMSs on the others.

However, system preference has not been the primary – or only – issue that has occupied NHTSA. Its regs are back in court again.

This past June, the unusual consortium of TIA, Goodyear, Bridgestone/Firestone, Cooper, Pirelli, Yokohama and Public Citizen filed suit to block the latest regulatory offering from taking effect.

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The RMA also supports the challenge in principle but did not join in the lawsuit because it could not get a consensus from its membership.

How long this current court action – and subsequent pause in the compliance dates – lasts is anyone’s guess. Most observers will tell you that, thanks to the confused mess TPMS has become, NHTSA will review its future actions with more caution.

Inside the Lawsuit

The main issue now before the federal appeals court is NHTSA’s seemingly arbitrary alert threshold of 25% below the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended inflation pressure. The tire industry has been adamant in wanting no less than a 20% underinflation threshold.

Specifically, the plaintiffs believe the TPMS alert’s trigger point should be tied to a vehicle’s gross axle weight rating (GAWR) and/or each vehicle’s “real weight.” That would mean a low-pressure warning would trigger at one to two psi below the recommended cold inflation pressure or at an inflation level at which the tires can no longer carry the vehicle weight safely, whichever is higher.

In addition, the group also questions NHTSA’s ruling that OE-installed TPMSs are not required to work with replacement tires and that TPMSs need only to function after a vehicle is driven between 50 and 100 kph continuously for 20 minutes.

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Importantly for dealers – and any independent shop that services tires – the group also challenged NHTSA on the availability of sensor repair and recalibration information to the aftermarket.

Just weeks ago, NHTSA denied a separate request by SEMA to require automakers to provide TPMS service information to independent shops, and a separate request that OE TPMSs allow recalibration to accommodate tires with different recommended inflation pressures.

That means that – at least for now – automakers control the TPMS table. Independents who want reinstallation and recalibration procedures for a particular make and model will have to track it down themselves and probably pay for such necessary information.

Worse yet, those customers who want to change tire/wheel sizes may not have a working TPMS as a result.

Hair Trigger?

“Congress charged NHTSA with creating a rule that would keep the motoring public safe,” said Roy Littlefield, executive vice president of TIA.

“This rule does not do that. This could be the first time in the history of rulemaking that the industries impacted by a proposed regulation do not think that the proposal is stringent enough.”

TIA and the tiremakers have consistently challenged NHTSA’s TPMS trigger threshold of 25% as being too high. NHTSA, on the other hand, feels a lower alert point would cause too many warnings, which drivers would tire of to the point that they would stop paying attention.

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The industry disagrees. “We are afraid that this rule, if it is allowed to stand, will make consumers more apathetic to their tires, and make our tire retailers, manufacturers and technicians more vulnerable to lawsuits in the future,” said Littlefield.

The participating tiremakers were reluctant to discuss the suit, but TIA, to make its (and the group’s) point, gave this example on its Web site:

“…A car with a GAWR of 1,885 pounds on the front axle has a recommended cold inflation pressure of 32 psi, which can support 1,058 pounds per tire. If the 25% threshold is used, the resulting alert pressure is 24 psi, at which point the carrying capacity of the tire will be less than 900 pounds per tire, thereby creating a potentially overloaded assembly.

“When the inflation pressure drops below 26 psi, the tire can no longer support the GAWR, or the maximum weight on the front axle. If the new proposed threshold of 25% is adopted, the driver could be driving on an overloaded tire for a significant period of time.”

In its recently denied petition, SEMA said the current TPMS rule would not ensure the aftermarket’s ability to recalibrate systems for any potential tire/wheel package and insisted that consumers would have a legitimate expectation that their OE TPMS would continue to operate properly when replacement or alternate tires and wheels are installed.

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“We went through the rulemaking with NHTSA and are supportive of this, in principle,” said Stuart Gosswein, director of federal government affairs for SEMA. “But, we want to make sure the aftermarket has access to all the information it needs.”

Heart of the Matter

Because of the delay and uncertainty about the final version of the regulations and the lack of subsequent helpful information, tire dealers and specialty performance shops that sell and service tires on customer wheels are ill prepared to deal with TPMS.

Dozens of OE systems are already on the street, and hundreds of horror tales have been told of sensors that have been broken during ‘routine’ mounts/demounts and complicated recalibrations after ‘routine’ tire rotations. With the cost of replacement TPMSs in the $200-to-$300 range, and 100% compliance likely just a few short years away, there will be no such thing as simple tire service anymore.

Do the automakers care? No. After the vehicle leaves the factory, their compliance issue ends. But the OEMs will leave behind a tidy opportunity for their vehicle dealers. After all, who will be in the best position to have the right tools, equipment and, most importantly, information on how to handle these systems?

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“Unless we work together, new-car dealers are going to take tire dealers to the wood shed,” says Kevin Rohlwing, TIA’s senior vice president of technical and educational services.

Because the OEMs will help their dealers first, and because getting necessary service information and tools remains difficult and costly for tire dealers, it is a legitimate fear that new-car dealers will make the most hay out of TPMS.

With more and more car dealers already looking to new-tire sales as another way to bring customers back to their highly profitable service bays, new-car dealers will certainly try to leverage this obvious advantage. Before long, it would seem logical that car dealers will be telling consumers that they must get their tires serviced by them because “we are the only ones who have the right tools and training to handle TPMS.”

This is yet another reason, say industry insiders, why federal Right to Repair legislation is necessary.

What Now?

As the auto industry has an inherent head start on tool inventory, training, expertise, etc., and the all-important service issue, the tire industry is appropriately asking itself a few poignant questions:

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What tools – including hardware, software and training – will we need to ensure that we can handle our customers’ needs? And, on behalf of the proactive participants, how can we parlay this mandate into new business?

Fortunately for the tire industry, some of the tools already exist, and training programs with software and manuals are being developed by several groups, including Delphi, AutoWare (direct and indirect systems), Schrader Electronics, SmartTire Systems, Alldata, Bridgestone/Firestone, Mitchell1 and TIA.

One of the main reasons that training is so critical for servicing TPMSs is that if a sensor is damaged during a tire change, it will likely cost the shop $100 or more just to replace it, plus the time and cost involved in finding and installing a replacement sensor.

TIA has been hard at work creating a comprehensive TPMS training program for tire dealers. “We expect that our new training material will be available for the SEMA Show,” says Rohlwing. The program materials, he says, will include video and written manuals on physically handling the assemblies; a background on TPMS requirements and the TREAD Act; and a step-by-step recalibration procedure.

But Rohlwing offered this disclaimer: “While I know this will be a very valuable resource, a year from when it’s published, the market will be very different.”

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The reason for Rohlwing’s caution is that his own organization estimates that, already, there are 50 different TPMSs on more than 60 different types of vehicles, a number that will certainly grow as new models are introduced.

“There is just a lot of inconsistency in the TPMS market,” he says. “Our board stepped up to the plate and funded the development of a TPMS training program without outside support. Our goal is to give our members the tools they need to handle these systems.”

Dealers Seek Help Now

“Our training program (for TPMS) is a work in progress,” says Dean Adams, director of mechanical sales for Boston-based Sullivan Tire. “TIA asked us to participate in a focus group to aid in the development of its training program.” Sullivan Tire is working to ‘certify’ its people on TPMS-handling procedures.

But Adams admits that the idea of TPMS ‘certification’ is evolving. “Last year was the first time we addressed the issue of training for TPMS,” he says, “but we are confident in our annual training.”

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For the past five years, Sullivan Tire has brought in two people from each of its 43 stores in New England for an entire day of training on tire changing. Many other dealers from around the country are proactively training their people – to the best of their ability, given the lack of definitive information about existing systems.

So, while training is growing and being addressed bit by bit, another immediate concern for the aftermarket is trying to find replacement parts for those 50 to 60 different systems already in existence.

“Our guys are getting more familiar with (TPMS), but most suppliers are not carrying the valve stems you need,” says Jay Ehrenfried, owner of Golden Gate Goodyear in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. “Right now, we have to buy them from auto dealers – for Cadillacs and top luxury cars like Lexus, etc.

“If the system is damaged, that’s one thing. But, when you have to go out and find the replacement parts, well, that’s another problem.

“There is a real limited supply of replacement valves, and they cost about $150 for one. Valve stems used to be a profit center for me,” he says. “These have leaked frequently, and, recently, when I had to replace tires on a Nissan SUV, I had to order a valve from California.”

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In addition, valve caps, stems, cores and O-rings are other scarce parts.

“The cores are not removable. They are aluminum, and you can’t put a steel valve core back into them because it will weld the core inside,” says Ehrenfried’s service manager, Scott McPherson. “We also have trouble with valve caps because they usually require an O-ring. But, the things that deteriorate are those O-rings that seal it into the wheel.”

O-rings are found on each side of the valve stem – inside and outside of the wheel – and under the valve cap, to prevent leaks. Finding a source for those is a huge concern.

“We’re finding some if we call around enough,” says Ehrenfried. “When the customer comes in for tires, you should change those, but we don’t have O-rings in our inventory yet.”

A Bright Side?

It seems as though everything revolves around the overwhelming need for training, parts and information. And, while the tire industry is moving forward, another industry already has an inherent edge.

However, one innovative dealer in Florida views TPMS as a golden opportunity to promote and increase his business.

“Everything’s coming from the car dealerships and the auto industry,” says Craig Knarich, owner of Pit Crew Tire in Palm Harbor, Fla. “They really have all the tools and resources.”

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Knarich is a rogue in the tire industry. After spending 13 years with Firestone, he took his knowledge, literally, on the road. Since 1991, he has been a one-man mobile dealership, selling tires and service from his 1997 Isuzu FRR.

Knarich points out that each vehicle maker’s system is distinct, and the complexity of servicing various systems ties the vehicle owner to a car dealership, thereby jeopardizing tire dealer business.

“Car manufacturers are doing their own in-house tire business, and the (tire) industry has been cut out of its source of revenue.”

Lest you think Knarich has been in the heat too long, he is not just a casual industry bystander. He has been very proactive in his support of TPMS education and was an active participant in a SEMA-sponsored special conference on the systems at last year’s Las Vegas show.

By self-admission, Knarich is a “small piece of the pie,” but he is proud of his $300,000 annual “part-time” tire sales. He works full time for the Pasco County, Fla., fire/rescue squad.

“We’re not bad people,” he says, “but, as an industry, we’ve traditionally been reactive and not proactive. We need to realize that everyone is having the same problems. We can capitalize on TPMS by learning as much as we can and then passing along that information to the customer. We need to educate the customer. The biggest nightmare will be for the end consumer. Customer service is priceless.

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“My recommendation is to spend the money now and get the tools to help your employees work around the problem – on behalf of your customers – today and tomorrow,” he says. “Also, train your employees, and explain to them how the systems work.

“One important thing, too, is for us, as managers, to listen to our technicians more often. There is little communication between managers and laborers. If we listen to each other, we will all succeed.”

 

Types of Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems

Indirect: The majority of current systems in use are indirect. Linked to existing anti-lock brake systems, indirect TPMSs don’t measure tire pressure; they calculate (some would say “guesstimate”) air pressure using sophisticated algorithms to infer when a specific level of underinflation has been reached. How? Software bases its pressure calculation on the principle that an underinflated tire will have a smaller radius than one properly inflated; therefore, an underinflated tire will produce more revolutions per mile than a properly inflated unit. Indirect systems compare one tire’s RPM to the others, which is okay if just one tire is affected. But these systems give false readings if tires on the same end of the vehicle or all the tires are underinflated. While less expensive for automakers to install, consumer groups do not believe this type will be sufficient to comply with the TREAD Act intent.

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Direct: These systems feature a sensor – mounted at the drop center of the wheel, applied to the innerliner or as part of the valve stem assembly – in each wheel/tire assembly. The sensor sends live inflation pressure data to a receiver, normally located in the wheel well. From there, the information is transferred to a dashboard display that shows which tire is low, and, with some systems, by how much. Multi-channel, direct TPMSs can specify which tire is low, while single channel systems can only indicate that one or more tires are underinflated. There is a major concern with valve-stem style TPMSs: weight. A valve-stem TPMS sensor weighs approximately 1.4 ounces, while a normal rubber valve stem weights half an ounce. The obvious concern involves balancing.

Mount/Demount With TPMS: Some Guidelines

When a TPMS-equipped vehicle reaches your service or tire techs, do they know what to do? While there are as many ways to skin this cat as there are TPMSs, here are some practical tips from Craig J. Knarich, owner/operator of Pit Crew Tire in Palm Harbor, Fla., on how to handle valve-stem TPMS units. This is not intended to be a step-by-step procedure to fit every application; these are just some general guidelines to consider when approaching TPMS replacement.

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1) Put the car on the lift. “It sounds stupid, but you’d be surprised how many don’t start with this step,” says Knarich.

2) There is a small aluminum tool called a three-purpose tool available through Myers Tire Supply (part number 27117) or American Tire Distributors (which calls it a two-sided valve tool, part number 435176020). It’s just like a valve cap and fits over the stem. This device is used to take the air out of the tires – safely and securely – without removing the valve core. It screws onto the valve stem and depresses the core, removing the air safely.

As a side note, Knarich recently realized the value of this tool when he was putting nitrogen into the tires on a Chrysler Town & Country. He was not using the tool because he was in a hurry. Instead, he used a valve torque tool. He successfully deflated three tires but was having trouble with the last one when the veteran did what he feared – he broke the valve core. The core broke due to electrolysis freezing it inside the stem.

3) After deflation, remove the valve tool. Then, place the assembly onto the tire changer’s side shovel.

4) Do not remove the TPMS yet. This is another no-brainer, as losing or forgetting the rubber O-rings and washers is very easy to do, but it can’t be overstated. You’ll have to re-torque the TPMS in inch-pounds. And, how many dealers have an inch-pound torque wrench in their shop? Just leave it on.

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5) Break the tire down. If you are using a side shovel, one of the most common machines in tire shops, make sure that you position the valve stem (TPMS) 180 degrees away from the side shovel.

6) On the changer, if your bar is going in at the 12 o’clock position on the demount head, put the TPMS at 2 o’clock. Then, rotate the turntable counter clockwise until the TPMS meets the demount head and bar at 12 o’clock. Then, proceed clockwise until the top bead comes up.

7) Repeat Step 6 for the bottom bead. If you do this, it will never come in contact with the TPMS unit. Prior to demounting, Knarich highly recommends generously lubing the wheel and tire (he prefers white paste lube) using a large paste brush. This, too, prevents harsh contact on the TPMS as the tire comes off, allowing the bead to go over the unit instead of snapping it off. Minor lube contact to the TPMS is okay, but try to avoid it if possible.

8) When mounting a tire, the best position for the TPMS is between 3 o’clock and 5 o’clock. The TPMS has to be ahead of the tire by about two to three inches in the drop center. This depends on how aggressive you are about pre-loading the tire into the drop center and on the equipment you are using. Sometimes, aggressive pre-loading is advantageous, Knarich says, as it may prevent slippage of the tire on the rim during mounting. This also helps the complete mounting of both beads on the wheel (valve stem area) in the same area of the mounting head.

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9) Last, but not least, is tire inflation. Easy, you say? Sometimes not. With low-profile tires, it can be a challenge to hand-rotate a tire on the wheel – even without a TPMS – to get up over the safety bead. It can be more difficult on EH2 or AH2 beads and is a common problem with some European cars. You have to get over the safety bead on the wheel because the air inflation hole on most TPMSs is on the side, not on the bottom.

TPMS and Customers: Practical Recommendations

Craig J. Knarich, owner/operator of Pit Crew Tire in Palm Harbor, Fla., offers a few suggestions on how dealers can handle customers with TPMSs:

“It all starts with the salesman or manager walking out to the customer’s vehicle and removing the valve caps on the tires to be changed or rotated. This is done to eliminate damaging the stem and ensure the caps have not frozen due to electrolysis, which can occur when metal or aluminum caps are used on aluminum TPMS stems,” he says.

(Note: some domestic and Japanese vehicles come with aluminum or metal caps. European vehicles, like BMW, Mercedes Benz, etc., and a few domestics, like newer Chrysler products, come with a gray cap with a rubber O-ring inside to prevent air seepage through the core. This is why most European cars with rubber valve stems come with metal caps.)

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Before starting the work, it’s important to notify the vehicle owner, while he/she is there, that the manager will take a triggering device with him to see if the TPMS is working. The one Knarich has used with great success is available through Myers Tire Supply and is called a positioning sensor tool or PST (part number 27134). The device will pay for itself with two false claims of non-working TPMSs from the customer, he says. The nice thing, says Knarich, is it is updatable with a programming interface module or PIM.

“With the PST in hand, the tech should trigger each individual sensor for verification and determine which frequency and system is used on that vehicle. In essence, this heads off blame to the dealer for faulty systems. This procedure also will teach and advise the sales staff and techs about problems with these systems, and they will be able to learn which systems are self-learners and which need to be retaught to the position on the car,” he says.

“One of the inherent downsides of a service tech is that he/she is constantly dirty. That’s not a commentary; some see their appearance as a ‘badge of honor.’ But in dealing with TPMSs, you want a ‘clean’ person inside the car touching the instrument panel and putting the system in the learning mode.”

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Knarich suggests that managers leave this procedure to the sales staff and have the techs learn down the road. This also has another purpose – it teaches your sales staff how much time it takes for all this added labor and is more advantageous for sales to explain problems and TPMS troubleshooting if the customer returns in the future for programming and warning issues.

“The last thing you want to do is send the customer back to the car dealer, right? You are the tire professional, but it won’t hurt to become buddy-buddy with some car dealers to get the inside info on TPMSs ASAP. It will make you look professional and keep you ahead of the competition.”

 

 

 

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