Speaking of unfinished business, didn’t TIA say it was high time that NHTSA finally issue that Congressionally mandated tire fuel efficiency testing, labeling and consumer education program? Didn’t they scream that it was taking too long?
A: Well, “scream” is probably the wrong word here, but yes, they did suggest that point. Back in 2011.
Q: So what happened?
A: Nothing. Nothing changed…except maybe the whole fuel efficiency labeling thing has become moot.
Q: What do you mean “moot”?
A: Moot as in “it’s not necessary at this time.” That moot.
Q: Weren’t you the guy in favor tire testing and labeling?
A: No, I was the one who pointed out the weak findings by the National Academy of Sciences, which reported in 2006 that tires contribute just 4% to a vehicle’s overall fuel use, and that Congress would be better served looking at other, more impactful vehicle systems. But after numerous states tried to legislate tire fuel efficiency, it was a strange relief to have one national solution rather than 50 different laws.
Q: Wait, didn’t that law include treadwear and wet traction, too?
A: Yes, those are in there, but the short of it is $2.50 a gallon for gas made Americans angry, and they expected government to save them, and everyone pointed at tires…
Q: But then…
A: But it all failed. Congress did what Congress does and passed a law – the Energy Bill of 2007, complete with RMA’s tire labeling language bolted on – and President Bush signed it, and…nothing. The law said NHTSA was to have the regulations enacted by December 2009, but we didn’t see a semi-final rule until March 2010…and four years later we still have nothing concrete.
Q: So what’s the hang-up?
A: Nobody seems to know. It shouldn’t have taken that long. Half of the testing parameter legwork had already been done in Europe, Japan and South Korea, but for some reason we had to create our own. Then the budget cuts came and…
Q: …killed any momentum. Yeah, I get it. But I still don’t get “moot”?
A: Hold on…that “semi-final” rule came out more than FOUR YEARS AGO!!!
Q: Hey, don’t yell at me…I thought NHTSA was going to issue the final-final-final rule last year, and now they say in a few months. What’s the problem now?
A: Have no idea. Everyone thought NHTSA was trying to decide who would handle the consumer education element, but no one knows. TIA said it wants the job because it’s worried that some lawyers or another outside party would be put in charge. And since there may be millions of taxpayer dollars doled out to pay for the education…
Q: Didn’t NHTSA say that most of the “education” was to be pushed by tire retailers?
A: Yeah…using the most modern and effective methods known, like website notices and wall posters and in-store handouts. I’m surprised they didn’t include fax machines and telegrams.
Q: But didn’t NHTSA just launch that fancy new website?
A: Yes, TireWise is a consumer campaign about choosing and caring for tires. It’s not just about fuel efficiency or tire grades, but a wide range of things like tire registration and checking inflation and TPMS and so forth. We’re not sure if this is NHTSA’s education answer, though. I know TIA hates it.
Q: OK, so is that the “moot”?
A: No, moot is a lot of stuff.
Q: Like what?
A: Like, consumers don’t seem to really care anymore – even in countries with active testing and labeling. Even when gas is now pushing $4 a gallon. Drivers have become numb to the highs and lows of fuel prices. We get on with our days, glancing nervously at fuel price signs as we pass gas stations, hoping for the best, settling for whatever…because we have to use our cars. We’ve cut back on how much we drive in total, but not by that much.
Q: So what’s happened in those other countries?
A: Europe is the best example. Since November 2012, fuel efficiency, wet grip and noise testing and labeling has been done. It’s the law in the EU. They use a simple letter grade system. ‘A’ is the best, ‘F’ is the worst – noise is noted in decibels – but is doesn’t really offer a more precise fuel economy difference, like in miles per gallon.
Q: Sounds like it would be a simple plan for tire buyers…
A: It is, but some studies say they don’t really care. Just recently, a third-party study showed that while tire buyers were aware of tire fuel efficiency labeling – and 80% said it was a good idea – the grades really weren’t that important in their buying process. Price and retailer recommendation have proved to be far more important to consumers.
Q: OK, sounds like the EU failed, not the concept.
A: Well, the shocking thing is that gas prices there range from $6 to $10 more per gallon than here. Those are crazy numbers to us, but they’re not buying the tire grades. Then you have to take into account other things…like the purported savings of “fuel-efficient tires” may not be that great, and the fact that fuel-efficient tires are more expensive. One tire company said its new fuel-efficient tire would save $300 over the life of the tires. So if those tires lasted five years, that’s $5 a month…not even enough for a crappy fast food lunch. But to save that $300, a driver would have to peel off a 10%-15% premium per tire. Hard to see anyone – especially Americans – rallying behind that.
Q: But wasn’t there another study at the University of Michigan that claimed that each 10% improvement in tire rolling resistance meant a 1% to 2% change in vehicle fuel economy?
A: Sure, but that can be accomplished by maintaining the right inflation pressure.
Q: OK, so what was the other thing?
A: It was actually two related things – the impact of rising CAFE standards and mandatory TPMS.
Q: Wait, what?
A: Tiremakers are under the gun to deliver lower rolling resistance OE tires to carmakers. Those better tires are one reason you can buy a mid-sized SUV that gets 27 miles to the gallon. And CAFE numbers will continue to trend upward for the next decade, so tires will get better and better, even if consumers don’t notice or even care.
Q: And TPMS?
A: If nothing else, those dashboard lights have forced drivers to be more mindful of their tires. No one can say what the improvement has been in real terms, but you’d think there would be some, right?
Q: Yeah, but what about all the noise tiremakers are making about their fuel-sippers?
A: Yes, some tiremakers now offer some fuel-efficient products – at least that’s their claim. But with no verifiable testing and no real apples-to-apples way to judge one tire against another, we have to believe their claims of “X% improvement.” Look, at the start of all this, I thought fuel efficiency testing and labeling would be great for tiremakers and consumers. Good tires with high marks would rise to the top and set the bar higher and higher, and shear competition would drive the others to improve. This law should have had a remarkable impact on the entire breed. But now I’m not so sure tiremakers ever wanted those regs…
Q: Well, they certainly didn’t want 50 laws, right?
A: True. But the other side of that coin is consumers in this country are not different than their European counterparts – price and treadwear are still far more important. Tire fuel efficiency is way down their decision tree. There is this other survey from Europe…
Q: Geez, don’t they stop?
A: Well, at least they care enough to ask. Anyway, this new study suggests that “F” graded tires – the lowest rolling resistance grade possible – deliver the same fuel efficiency as “B” rated tires at speeds between 20 and 55 mph. That’s not much of a surprise, but what it tells consumers is that price, availability and treadlife DO MATTER MORE because there is very little difference otherwise.
Q: So is that all to your “moot”?
A: No! Look, we are either going to follow the law or not. At the end of the day, there has been a deep institutional failure to aggressively and properly educate consumers about the miracle that is their tires, how they are complicated machines that keep them safe, developed by the finest technology, produced in the best plants and supported by the very best independent tire dealers. And that these miracle products DESERVE to be treated better, and that your very life depends on how well you care for your tires…
Q: OK, now you’re getting preachy…
A: Sorry, but people would care about things like fuel-efficient tires if they thought of tires as more than just “round and black.” Until we stop treating them like…well, gym socks…tire buyers will be forced to weigh a bunch of wild-west claims to try and make the best decision. Even if we don’t like the fact they rely on “price and value,” at least price and value have numbers attached to them that people can understand.
Q: So is that why all of this is all “moot”?
A: I guess. It’s just taken too long, and too many things have changed. And now I’m afraid that it really doesn’t matter what NHTSA cooks up or when. At this point it may do more harm than good. Maybe it’s best they just stop.
Q: And then what will we have?
A: I don’t know. I don’t know if I even care any more.