As I may have mentioned before in this column, the bureaucrats in Brussels who run Europe have very tidy minds and they feel that metrication is a job left unfinished.
Of course, most of Europe has been metric for a century or more, but Britain and Ireland made the change in more recent times, while Canada is and the U.S. still linger in an imperial past. Those in Brussels find this a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs and plan to kill the inch once and for all.
In fact, this murderous intent goes further because the yard, the mile and every other sort of non-metric measure are also about to be placed on measurements’ death row. Worse still, dual marking, which is currently permitted and still much in evidence on everyday products, will also be outlawed.
A European Union (EU) directive, threatened for 2010, intends to consign non-metric ‘expressions’ to the history books and make renegades of those who transgress. This directive, known as 80/181, first appeared some years ago, but such was the scale of public outrage that it had been deferred. Now it is back.
Sadly amusing, yes, but what relevance does it have to tyres? Plenty, I’m afraid.
Combination of Markings
As most readers will know, tyres, just like a few other products, use a combination of metric and non-metric markings with almost all rim sizes still described in inches, while a tyre’s section width is expressed in millimetres. Given the hundreds of thousands of tyre manufacturing moulds in existence around the world, the gigantic cost and inconvenience of conversion would only be matched by its huge unimportance. To what extent manufacturers and their governments will fight against the directive is not yet clear, but fight they should.
With many, the penny (sorry, I mean centime!) is only just starting to drop, but the implications are very great.
For example, North America will stay with its inches for a while longer, so that will mean maintaining strictly separate inventories for Europe-destined products, the sidewalls of which will need to be untainted by any non-metric markings or symbols. Pounds per square inch is out. As for the once-standard 5½ J wheel, my calculator suggests this will need to be reborn as a 13.97 J. What an improvement!
Leaving alone may not be an option, but I doubt whether our obsessively meddling bureaucrats have thought about some of the implications of all this.
Tyres and the vehicles they fit are not like some can of soft drink with a brief product life; they are around for a long time, decades in the case of classic and vintage models, thus adding to consumer confusion. And, when you put air into them it will have been measured in bars, not psi.
The fact of the matter is that the new directive is quite unnecessarily prescriptive and ought to be exposed as the nonsense it is. I have no more love of the inch than I have of the centimetre, but we should be left to accommodate both for as long as it makes economic and commercial sense. The criminalising of the one in favour of the other serves no purpose and will cost billions of dollars, which the industry and ultimately the consumer will be charged with.
If enough tyre manufacturers (and these are not the only ones who will be affected) complain about this to their governments, and enough governments have the will to impress their concerns on Europe’s legislators, it may still be avoided.
Time, however, is short.
Challenging Times for India
I have written before about the lack of brand recognition in Europe when it comes to tyres, but it really is a serious matter. Think about it.
First, there is the not-so-small matter of the price a manufacturer can obtain for his product when it is allowed to become just another commodity. No matter how well designed, how great a performer, brand anonymity will not carry a premium.
Then, there is the question of how best to build and defend market share. Without a recognised brand name, that is difficult. Yet, that is the position of many worthy names in our marketplace today.
Europe’s beleaguered brands can often be heard complaining about the ‘threat’ from imports, but should they be surprised? In neglecting our brand names, we actually allow the market to drift towards commodity status and that makes entry a lot easier for the ever-growing list of new tyre names in the European marketplace. Good news for Asia’s new exporters perhaps, but a salutary lesson too should they be foolish enough to make the same mistake on their own home turf.
Relevant? Well the Indian tyre market may soon have to fight on two fronts because not only has the export challenge still to be addressed, but before too long, it will also have to face up to a more open market at home. As far as exports are concerned, there are great opportunities for Indian-produced tyres, especially if the cost disadvantage vis-À-vis Chinese products can be mitigated, perhaps through greater economies of scale, inherently better understanding of Western markets and the sort of customer focus the Chinese sometimes seem to find so difficult.
However, on both fronts, import and export, the product ranges offered by Indian tyre brands will need to be developed and expanded very rapidly to compete on an equal basis and that means a lot more radical product.
The Pace of Change
When change comes, it can hit us very quickly. Take the mobile phone, for example. In a few short years, it has become commonplace almost everywhere. In the telecom market, the landline telephone no longer dominates.
Take tyre radialisation, for example, where India is almost the last major country to ditch the bias-ply tyre for its 40-year-old brother, the radial. That long-delayed change is now just around the corner, and experience elsewhere suggests that its coming will have big implications in some corners of the market.
Though radials in particular radial car tyres last longer than bias, they can also get damaged more easily, so perhaps these two factors will balance out. Passenger retreaders will also find life more difficult because radial retreading is a more costly and difficult process and, to add to their woes, tyre size proliferation is about to hit India in a big way as the two or three dominant bias-ply sizes eventually fade away. That will mean a big investment in the introduction of new sizes and moulds.
With the radial too, casing quality is even more critical than for the bias product, so retreaders can expect a tough time. Faced with the onslaught from Asian tyre producers like China and Indonesia, most of Europe’s car tyre retreaders have already gone to the wall in a continent where tariff protection is already minimal.
Recycling the radial is also less easy in other ways. Its wire content makes it a tougher proposition to cut up or shred and this self-same wire makes some traditional cottage industry forms of tyre recycling more difficult or even impossible. Even those techniques which are possible may be overwhelmed by the volume of radial car tyres which will soon be coming off vehicles as India’s rapidly growing vehicle population will generate.
Yet this is no time for doom and gloom, as some great new opportunities will undoubtedly emerge just as it happened elsewhere. It will take effort, vision and a shared commitment.
Peter Taylor, Editor