NHTSA likely to TREAD on truck tires

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After the Bridgestone/Firestone passenger-car tire recall of 2000 – and the flurry of hearings before the Congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce on the safety of tires and “related matters” – the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act was born.

The legislation was introduced quickly and aimed squarely at passenger-car tires. But truck fleet operators are advised to understand its implications, because “commercial tires, including retreads, will eventually be affected,” says Dave Laubie, Bridgestone/Firestone’s executive director, engineering. “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking to update performance standards for truck tires, and has a lot of testing to complete. My personal guess is that there will be an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking sometime next year, and that commercial tires could be affected in 2005.”

Initially, provisions of the TREAD Act will apply only to passenger vehicles, with some as yet unspecified requirements applicable to commercial vehicles under 10,000 pounds GVWR.
First, the Act will require OEMs and tire manufacturers (and brand owners) to report to NHTSA on deaths, injuries, property damage, consumer advisories, warranty claims, foreign recalls and field reports related to their products.

The rationale here is that, “Experience has shown that manufacturers often obtain information suggesting the existence of a safety-related problem months, and sometimes years, before consumer complaints to NHTSA indicate a potential problem,” according to The Honorable Jeffrey W. Runge, NHTSA’s M.D. administrator.

Nonetheless, “It’ll cost a lot of money just for data collection,” says Laubie. “NHTSA would have the largest database ever.”

There seems little doubt that the extra costs of satisfying NHTSA’s requirements will be reflected in the price of new tires. Moreover, since warranty claims will be regarded as reportable events, tire manufacturers and distributors probably will be less likely to acquiesce in cases of grey-area claims. In other words, the days of a nod and a wink to a good fleet customer, and a well-felt ‘what the hell? Here’s a new tire,’ may be numbered.

Next, tire labeling is likely to change. Where DOT numbers currently are required to be molded into only one sidewall, the Act will likely require that at least a partial number appear on the other sidewall as well, to aid in identification of affected tires.

“Tire molds are expensive,” notes Laubie, “and changing them isn’t easy.” Again, if it costs more to make, it’s going to cost more to buy.

Because underinflation is the No. 1 cause of tire failure, another major TREAD component will be the requirement of tire-pressure monitoring systems, “probably applied at the OEM level,” says Laubie. He adds that these may be the direct type, e.g., radio-frequency transponders, central tire inflation systems (CTIS), etc., or the indirect type, such as one that works off existing ABS sensors.

The latter would read and compare individual wheel speeds. If a tire were significantly underinflated, its rolling radius would be shorter, and the sensor at that wheel would report a higher speed, relative to the other wheels, which would trigger a low-pressure warning.

However, says Laubie, “If all tires were underinflated at the same time, the system wouldn’t know.

“CTIS is a favorite of NHTSA,” he adds, “but it’s expensive.”

The good news is that NHTSA isn’t rushing into rulemaking without industry input. “They know truck tires are a different animal, and they’re listening to rubber manufacturing groups,” says Laubie. “Still, if they decide that a new performance test is to be required, that may mean additional engineering at the tire manufacturers’ level.”

And that could leave still more TREADmarks on fleet operators’ wallets.