LOUISVILLE, Ky.-They'll never be able to think for themselves, but someday it may be commonplace for truck tires to talk. ``Talk,'' you say?
Expect a pretty boring conversation. That is, unless you're interested in finding out things like when the tire was put into service, how many revolutions per mile it travelled, or its air pressure.
Rapidly advancing technology made the advent of the computer chip-in-a-tire a reality several years ago. But retreaders attending a truck tire management seminar at the recent American Retreaders' Association Louisville tire conference got a glimpse of some fascinating prospects to come in the not-too-distant future. Devices that may make fleet management-and retreading-a lot more ``scientific,'' not to mention easier and more cost-effective.
RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification, involves a low frequency radio transmitter, often called a ``smart chip,'' installed in a tire. Measuring as little as 3/4-inch by 1/8-inch, the device weighs a couple of grams-less than a nickel.
While the oft-discussed ``information superhighway'' involves coupling computers globally, another roadway of data, called the ``Smart Vehicle Highway System'' or IVHS-the ``I'' stands for ``intelligent''-may indicate the future of travel. On a ``smart highway'' a truck with tires bearing smart chips would roll over a computerized pavement section at an inspection station, where the data would be monitored by a computer, said Al Cohn, marketing manager for Goodyear Commercial Systems Engineering.
For fleets, the smart tires could provide a number of advantages by linking them to a computer that registers the tires' service record, fuel savings and trip reports.
Another concept being tested, Mr. Cohn said, involves a satellite dish mounted on a truck which relays information from the smart chips in the tires back to the trucking terminal.
While some electronic tire tracking/monitoring systems are in developmental stages, similar technology already is being used in the waste management industry, for security purposes and for livestock identification, according to Tony Sabetti, application center manager for TIRIS (Texas Instruments Registration & Identification System), an Attleboro, Mass., division of Texas Instruments Inc.
In the same family as bar codes and magnetic identification strips, RFID devices compute data, but only work when placed in front of an instrument that ``reads'' and translates the information into computer language, Mr. Sabetti explained to retreaders. Thus, the possibility of human error is averted. The system's speed also eliminates manually recording data.
Additionally, Mr. Sabetti said the devices are ideal for applications where:
Dirt and grime are a problem;
Environments of harsh fluids, chemicals or rough-handling situations exist;
Hands-free use is needed;
Accurate speed and distance are important; and
Tamper-proofing and security are required to track ownership.
Texas Instruments is developing a glass capsule transponder hermetically sealed in a repair-patch-like molded ``pocket.'' It is a low-frequency, passive device that contains a small antenna but no battery and can be programmed at the factory with a unique, unalterable 24-digit identification code.
Mr. Sabetti said the unit must be able to withstand the high temperatures inherent in the tire-manufacturing process as well as in normal on-vehicle operation.
Some of the greatest concerns of tire customers, he added, are that a smart chip be passive, able to operate for seven years within a tire and easily be able to identify and read a tire either on or off a rim, on a vehicle or while stored. Texas Instruments recommends the transponder patch be put inside a tire, though Mr. Sabetti said some tire makers have had success molding it into a tire.
Mounting locations for the device each hold distinctive advantages and disadvantages. If in a tire's crown area, along the centerline opposite the tread, the chips can distinguish and read a tire in the inside dual position. But since there's more metal in the crown area, Mr. Sabetti said the range at which the chip can be ``read'' is reduced, and it also undergoes greater shock and vibration there.
In a sidewall, mounted three inches up from and parallel to a tire's bead, the chip displays mechanical stability, he said, but is difficult to read in inside duals.
Mr. Sabetti said Texas Instruments has lab- and field-tested transponders-both in a patch and molded into a tire-to Department of Transportation endurance specifications and for the ability to withstand destructive forces. The results produced were ``OK.''
In 1989, Texas Instruments introduced its first identification-only device. A second level of sophistication, Mr. Sabetti said, would add more memory to it in order to record the number of miles and revolutions travelled, number of retreadings, temperature and inflation pressure.
``As you move into those areas,'' he noted, ``the more features you add the more the cost increases. But how much is it worth to you if you reduce the time actually spent manually in tire maintenance?''
Identification-only devices are in the market today, he said, but the Greyhound bus company is currently experimenting with the more sophisticated transponders. Prompted by his audience to put a price tag on the gadgets, Mr. Sabetti answered: ``That's a dangerous question for me. I'll probably never sell a fleet this technology-rather, it's more for the manufacturers.''
However, he estimated the volume price is expected to range from $2 to $6 per tire.
As a representative of a trucking company, seminar participant Peggy Fisher, president of Roadway Tire Co., a large truck tire retreader in Columbus, Ohio, was asked about trucking industry interest in the smart chips.
``Fleets will not accept this technology simply (to provide an) identification number on a tire, at a cost of $4 per tire,'' she replied. ``What will make it worthwhile is if a chip reads tire pressure-pressure is money to a fleet.
``We would also really love to have revolutions-per-mile and, for retreading purposes, temperature so we know the operating temperature, or if the tire ran flat or underinflated.''