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Raising the Bar: Safety Systems for People or Profit?

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If you raise the bar should you expect others to follow? Does raising the bar establish only one new level of competence or does it instill consistent focus on continuous improvement?

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What if you felt that raising the bar would benefit another group, but that group doesn’t seem to notice or care?

Where is the line that separates altruism from profiteering?

These are some of the top-line philosophical questions that came to mind when I was pondering the whole idea of legislated tire performance standards. There hasn’t been much talk about this subject since it was first forwarded by the RMA, and even after it was included as part of S.1741. That pesky tire registration question stole all of the headlines.

I’m not sure where I fall on this subject. I do believe that public safety demands surety of product performance, which can be measured by thorough and consistent testing. But should we allow a “public safety” system to also be a cudgel that beats back competition we don’t like?

What separates the best safety interests of drivers from the best financial interests of manufacturers?

To recount: In addition to creating a mandatory tire registration system, Senate Bill 1741 would create minimum tire performance standards for tire fuel efficiency and wet traction. If a tire doesn’t meet those minimum standards, it cannot be sold on these shores.

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The RMA was deeply involved in crafting the language of S.1741, which was introduced on July 9. According to the bill, the fuel efficiency standards are to be “expressed in terms of the rolling resistance coefficient measured using the test procedure specified,” which just happen to be the same test procedures in the still-waiting-for-life “Tire Fuel Efficiency Consumer Information Program.”

Wet traction limits, however, will be set based on benchmarking of tires currently available on the U.S. market “to ensure that the minimum performance standards” established are “tailored to tires sold in the U.S.; and the needs of consumers in the U.S.”

Excused from the proposed law are “light truck tires, deep tread tires, winter-type snow tires, space-saver or temporary use spare tires, or tires with nominal rim diameters of 12 inches or less.”

As Pete Selleck pointed out, the Tire Fuel Efficiency Consumer Information Program, as originally constructed, did a lot of good things, but “it did not set any thresholds. It said we’ll give consumers information, but no matter what the grade is, the tire’s going to be sellable in the country.”

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Selleck, chairman and CEO of Michelin North America, is also chairman of the RMA. He made those remarks during his keynote address at this year’s Clemson University Tire Industry Conference.

Regulations setting minimum rolling resistance and wet traction standards “either are in place or are being considered by virtually every major country in the world – except for North America,” he noted. All of Europe, Brazil and Saudi Arabia have minimum thresholds, and countries like Morocco, South Africa, India and even China are considering such regulations, he claimed.

“When you start setting these requirements, there are certain manufacturers in the world that just simply don’t have very much R&D. They don’t have very much technology,” he noted. “So, where can they send their products that are not fuel-efficient, that cause a lot of pollution and that are dangerous from a wet braking standpoint? Where do they send their tires?

“We believe the U.S. needs a rolling resistance and wet traction standard, the minimum level that all tires have to be at. We think it’s important to conserve resources and conserve fuel. It improves safety. It encourages innovation, R&D and the use of the latest technology. It improves the environment.”

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Selleck admits that even some RMA members have tires that “do not meet the standards that we’re proposing. So, we know that we’re going to have to do a lot of work.”

But in his mind, Europe’s tire testing, grading and labeling scheme, in place since 2012, hasn’t changed consumer tire-buying actions, leading him to question the need for grading and labeling in the U.S. “What has been impactful in Europe are the thresholds, the fact that tires that cannot meet the minimum standards are no longer able to be sold.”

Fair enough, and certainly nothing there that I can disagree with. But one also has to consider intent. Chinese tires have been a significant part of our industry for at least a decade, during which time there has been a considerable improvement in their technology and performance – not Big 3 level, but certainly competent and getting better every year.

Why now? Where was this proposal five, seven, even 10 years ago?

Yes, there are a number of overseas producers that don’t measure up. But there always seem to be ready customers, right? Is the push for minimum standards an indictment of those importers less interested in public safety than gross profits?

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Because of their low acquisition cost, more than competitive retail pricing (re: great margins) and high consumer acceptance, Chinese tires are both loved and cursed. I know one retailer who makes a lot of money selling hundreds of them a week…and consumers never complain.

Might this regulatory push be the majors’ new way to force low-cost Chinese tires – regardless of quality – out of the U.S. market instead of facing price battles from competent, competitive products?

Have top brands done a good enough job positioning their safety-utility-technology-price value (premium brand) argument in the minds of consumers, or do today’s tire buyers only see “round and black” and shoot for the best price-utility-no-one-complains value?

Do consumers even care about tire fuel efficiency anymore? Subdued by $4 per gallon gas just a few short years ago, drivers today are basking in cheap fuel. NHTSA’s own research three years ago indicated that rolling resistance is not an important factor for tire buyers and is not having a major effect on fuel consumption in the U.S.

And do tiremakers even care about fuel efficiency today? After a hard charge to bring out as many “green” products as possible, the tide went out and today “fuel efficient” is just another product attribute, right there with “aggressive siping” and “head-turning sidewall design.”

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Recall that an American public warped at $2.50 gas in 2006-07 is what got us to the whole tire testing and labeling scheme to begin with. How ironic is it that eight years later gas is again $2.50 a gallon, but tire fuel efficiency just doesn’t seem to resonate?

So where do you come down on this subject?

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