Tire trade associations

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Sir John Houghton’s autobiography, In the Eye of the Storm, describes his scientific career in the study of climate change. He is a leader in establishing that man’s activities since the industrial revolution are responsible for current climate changes.

Having established the scientific truth of climate warming, he and his colleagues were surprised by the response from those in denial, those with vested interests and in the strength of lobbyists. Among those lobbyists was the tire industry.

This had me thinking about the value and the role of tire industry trade associations. They were historically important in establishing standards for tires, wheels, rims and valves, but times are now different. Is a body designed to encourage imported tires into, say, the UK, which has one of the biggest car production operations, relevant if it hastens the demise of tire production in the UK? Conversely we are now seeing increasing moves toward reshoring exported industry, partially based on the climate change arguments.

Tire industry trade associations were active in the introduction of tire labeling legislation, accompanied by ill-thought-through enforcement criteria. And in my view, the actual tire labeling is weak in terms of grade settings. Surely any meaningful approach should have been based on the current best performance as the lower limit; targets to reach the higher standards should be real tire improvements.

Instead the industry representatives have achieved a result where the lowest common denominator is the norm. Does the adopted approach do the customer or the progressive tire manufacturers any favors? Why were the governmental authorities not sufficiently aware of tire technology to observe what was happening?

The push for a legal limit to tire life in the USA led to years of well-meaning research and testing, but no agreement between the tire industry bodies and the legislation authorities has been achieved. Interestingly, after a fatal coach crash in the UK, there has been pressure from individuals on the UK government that may bring legislation closer.

In these examples, the science is established but progress is being restrained. The Tire Technology Conference is the global event for tires, yet we have had only two government officials present papers and none attending as a learning exercise. Trade and standards bodies have spoken on some five or six occasions, but only when invited to do so.

Are trade bodies irrelevant to today’s world and is there a need for more informed government officials? The failure of industry trade bodies to work on a global scale has resulted in the fragmentation of tire legislation even within the EU, which does little to help a global market. The duplication of tire testing has created additional expense.

There is general agreement that road transport accounts for 25% of CO2 emissions, and that of this 25%, one-fifth is associated with tires and tire energy losses. The transportation industry is now considering alternatives to the internal combustion engine and we can also expect tires to change to meet the new and different performance criteria. We are seeing the start of change in tire sizes, with a return to higher aspect-ratio tires, but we are not seeing ideas as to how low, in theory, tire rolling resistance can be reduced, or the suggestion of an equivalent figure for noise reduction.

The use of new research methodology, encouraged by the need for sustainable and replenishable materials, is resulting in important advances that will improve tire life. Yet we see no claims for the longer-life tires that I believe will be essential if the global road transport system is to continue to expand.

Meanwhile, the claims for electric vehicles and driverless vehicles grow and many of these vehicles will not require tires as we know them today. Tire replacement concepts are being evaluated on EVs. Climate change and the need to improve road transport safety will result in more research funding into conventional tire replacements. While the need for future generations will be centered on reducing CO2 emissions, governments may well prioritize the cost of road traffic accidents. In the UK the annual cost of road traffic accidents is some £15bn (US$23bn) – nearly 12% of the total health budget.

My view is that if tire industry trade associations have a role to play, they will need to change their philosophy, promoting considerably higher performance from the conventional tire and moving rapidly to global standards for those tire properties that really matter to the customer and the environment.

Whether the trade associations will succeed in changing, given the urgency and current rate of change in research and development activities, is doubtful. But however much progress is delayed by lobby groups and their ilk, the scientific truth will in the end win the final argument.

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