Wheels of government turn slowly

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Often, it’s frustrating when government drags its feet. But now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is bogged down developing tire tests and still has no timetable for applying the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act to truck tires. I say, hey, no rush.

After the big passenger-car tire recall in 2000, Congress quickly enacted the TREAD Act, which applied initially to passenger-car tires. But commercial tires, including retreads, will eventually be affected, says Guy Walenga, Bridgestone/Firestone’s engineering manager, North American commercial products.

The act will require truck OEMs, tire manufacturers, brand owners and retreaders to report to NHTSA on deaths, injuries, property damage, consumer advisories, warranty claims, foreign recalls and field reports related to their products. The theory is that manufacturers often obtain information hinting at safety-related defects well before consumer complaints indicate a problem.

Such intense reporting will drive up tire manufacturers’ administrative costs, which will no doubt be reflected in the price of tires and retreads. Moreover, once warranty claims become reportable events, tire manufacturers and distributors probably will get a lot tougher when evaluating warranty adjustments.

Also, tire labeling definitely will change. DOT numbers today must be molded into only one sidewall. But NHTSA likely will require at least a partial number on the other sidewall as well. “Changing tire molds isn’t easy,” says Walenga, “and it can be dangerous.” This will translate into extra labor and increased costs to tire manufacturers and end users. “At least they backed off a little, and won’t require the date code on both sidewalls,” he says. “That would have to be changed daily.”

Since underinflation is the No. 1 cause of tire failure, TREAD will require tire-pressure monitoring systems. Walenga notes that these may be the direct type – radio-frequency transponders, central tire inflation systems (CTIS), etc. – or the indirect type, such as one that works off existing ABS sensors.

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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, triggering a low-pressure warning. But if all tires were underinflated, the system wouldn’t know. CTIS is definitely the most effective remedy to underinflation, and “NHTSA really likes it,” says Walenga. “But it’s expensive.”

TREAD promises to make your most expensive maintenance item even more so. But NHTSA won’t even issue an advance notice of proposed rulemaking until it updates performance standards for truck tires. That will require tests to be developed, and that, says Walenga, is what’s got NHTSA spinning its wheels.

NHTSA’s initial plan was to run tires, underinflated and overloaded, at high speeds on a drum roller. “They were trying to replicate rubber-on-the-road failures,” says Walenga. “But instead, they got a lot of tread chunking, which isn’t real-world.”

At least the rulemakers listened to tire engineers, who convinced them that running a tire on a drum puts different stresses on a tire, as opposed to running it on flat pavement. The drum intrudes further into the belt package and sidewall and creates more unit pressure.

So now, NHTSA is working with industry associations, manufacturers and consultants to develop more realistic tests and create fair performance standards. At first, everyone thought that TREAD would be applied to commercial tires in 2005, but “there’s no guess as to when that will happen,” Walenga says.

Let’s encourage NHTSA to take all the time it needs.