Studies show that nine out of 10 buyers put safety at the top of their list when buying a new car. Yet a visit to a dealer's showroom indicates many shoppers pay more attention to a vehicle's color, mileage rating and sound system than they do the tires.
Consumers ordinarily don't think of tires as safety items. They usually direct their attention to airbags or anti-lock brakes.
Consumers also often make a broad assumption about new car tires. They believe the tires attached to their car are reasonably safe and will wear reasonably well.
In fact, that probably is the case. Car makers work closely with tire companies to find suitable tires and generally come up with a product that performs well.
But not all tires provide equal braking and cornering performance. Road testing identical vehicles, fitted with different tires, will often show a difference in handling, acceleration and stopping. This difference is caused by the tires.
Keep in mind that the only part of the vehicle that contacts the road surface is the small contact patch of the tread.
Press the palm of your hand flat against a flat surface and you get an idea of the amount of rubber that's in contact with the road at any given time.
It seems like a pretty small surface on which to guide the mass and momentum of a one- or two-ton vehicle traveling along the highway at 80 feet per second.
But we expect even more from a tire. We also want it to deliver maximum fuel economy, to furnish a comfortable ride, to resist shards of glass, nails and other highway debris and to keep the vehicle in a straight line under adverse conditions-even, for example, if it suddenly deflates.
There probably is no other vehicle component that has seen more technological development over the past few years than the tire.
The motoring public has little idea of the research and development behind the technology used to produce modern radials.
Consider the fact that there may be more than 2,000 different sizes and types of passenger tires on the market today. In some cases, it takes as many as 23 different operations to make a 185/60HR15-size tire.
The use of computers in the tire industry has greatly speeded up and changed the way tires are designed.
With computer technology, new developments have been rolling off drawing boards. And the recent changes in tires may be the most significant since the introduction of the radial.
In earlier times, tire design was done primarily by hand and testing was labor and time intensive. Companies would build a smooth tread tire and cut a design into it by hand. They then would test the tire, making modifications in the design and then repeating the process.
As a result, monitoring prototypes for features like wet traction or riding comfort would entail test after test of actual road performance.
Treadwear tests were even more tedious. To determine how long a tire could perform capably, teams of drivers would take to the road for eight to 10 hours a day until the tire had logged some 40,000 to 50,000 miles.
Several months sometimes elapsed before the designers had enough data to make adjustments. As a result, the entire process of designing a tire could take four to five years. Today, computers have cut that time considerably.
Now engineers can look at more than 100 tire characteristics at once, instead of limiting their monitoring to just traction, comfort and wear.
This ability also means the entire development process-from initial design to finished product-is now closer to two years.
It is now possible to design more aggressive looking treads that are quieter than conventional designs in past years.
Today's tires also perform far better than the older designs.
Within the last several years, attention also has been concentrated on the retreadability of passenger and truck tires.
Tire design and manufacturing technology have taken long strides forward, aided by the increasing use of computers and sophisticated scientific equipment.
The retreadability of passenger tires, for example, has benefited from the industrywide adoption of improved cord materials, rubber compounding and geometry of the tire.
It's important to keep these developments in mind when talking about tires.
Even with all the improvements resulting from better technology and design techniques, the average consumer still takes tires for granted-and doesn't give them a second look when buying a new car.
But you and I know there's a lot more than meets the eye in the modern radial tire.
In a sense, what you don't see is what you get when buying a tire-a highly engineered product that means as much to the safety and performance of a vehicle than any other component.
It's time the tire got the recognition it deserves-not only from the public, but also from tire dealers, retreaders and manufacturers who need to hold their product in higher regard. Those who know tires best should never allow them to be regarded as a mere commodity.