AKRON-As every commercial tire dealer knows, the shortest route to the typical fleet owner's heart is through his pocketbook. For decades, dealers have conducted surveys of the tires used by prospective fleet accounts in an effort to gain their business. Savvy salespeople find the knowledge gained from such surveys a potent weapon in their struggle to increase sales in a competitive and relatively finite market.
But the industry is at the dawn of a new era in which tire tracking will become increasingly easier and more productive, according to several experts contacted by TIRE BUSINESS.
Already, bar code labels and so-called ``passive'' computer chips, which emit a low-frequency radio signal, have begun the process of automating tire tracking.
What's more, the day is rapidly approaching, these experts said, when so-called ``smart tires'' will monitor their own performance and physical status-vastly reducing the need for human oversight.
For many commercial dealerships, the time-honored practice of ``tire tracking'' is more attractive than having to shave prices in order to take away business from one's competitors.
In many cases, an electric branding iron is used to assign a unique identification number to each tire, so that service personnel will be able to monitor the tire's performance throughout its life.
As practiced by generations of commercial sales representatives, tire tracking calls for prowling a prospective customer's lot and scrap pile and painstakingly inspecting the tires found there.
Armed with data resulting from the survey, the rep is then able to craft the sales presentation, detailing the condition of the fleet's tires and offering recommenda-tions designed to lower tire operating cost.
Later, if the effort proves successful, the rep may undertake another survey to document the hoped-for improvement in tire performance and resulting savings.
In recent years, the increasing use of computers by tire dealerships, retreaders and truck fleet managers has elevated the art of tire tracking to new heights. Using computer software, often specifically designed for the task, tire trackers can prepare detailed reports on the status of a fleet's tires-complete with charts and graphs for sales presentations.
Because of the time and effort involved in tire tracking, most practitioners welcome the prospect of automating it.
Bar code labels, which assign the necessary identification number to each tire, are seen as the first step toward automation.
Made of paper or rubber and affixed to the tire with adhesive, bar code labels currently are used for inventory and other purposes by a several tire makers and a few dealers, experts say.
And at least one retreader has developed his own system using bar code labels to track customers' tires from the time they're picked up until they ultimately are returned and the work billed out to the customer. (See accompanying story on page 9.)
As useful as bar code labels have proven to be, they also have their shortcomings, critics say. Paper labels sometimes fall off the tire, and rubber labels, over time, can become so covered over with dirt and grime that they're difficult to locate and virtually unreadable.
Because of these drawbacks and the anticipation that better identification alternatives are just over the horizon, use of bar code labels is unlikely to spread, said Peggy Fisher, president of Roadway Tire Co., a large truck tire retreading operation in Columbus, Ohio.
Ms. Fisher, whose company chooses to brand tires for identification, said most potential users will continue to bypass bar code systems in favor of the next anticipated development in tire tracking-the so-called ``smart'' or ``active'' computer chip.
``Why mess around with bar codes when smart chips are so close to coming out?'' said Ms. Fisher, who looks for such chips to become a commercial reality in about a year.
Using a technology known as Radio Frequency Identification or RFID, active chips are expected to provide tire trackers with much more information than merely the identity of the tire, which present-day ``passive'' chips already can provide.
Experts say the RFID chips also will relay information on the tire's internal air pressure, its operating temperature and, ultimately, how many miles it has run, what repairs were made to it and how many times it was retreaded.
Ms. Fisher and others can foresee the day when trucks will be driven over a computerized section of pavement in fleet service yards where the condition of the vehicles' tires will be ``read'' and the resulting data transmitted to a computer monitor at the maintenance garage-saving time for service personnel.
Ms. Fisher chairs the committee that recently drafted the trucking industry's standards for tire RFID technology. The committee, organized by The Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Association (TMC), also included representatives of virtually all North America's major tire manufacturers-most of whom she believes to be developing RFID technology.
The trucking industry had two basic purposes in mind when formulating the voluntary guidelines, Ms. Fisher said. The first was to hasten the development of RFID by keeping developers on track, rather than wasting time working on performance features trucking industry users really don't want.
The second was to prevent the sort of disaster in which users would need to buy different RFID monitoring equipment for each brand of tire being tracked.
Two tire makers in particular-Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Goodyear-have made no secret of their research in RFID.
BFS, for example, used the occasion of the TMC's March convention in Orlando, Fla., to announce development of a prototype ``active'' computer chip capable of providing what it called ``real-time information'' on tire temperature and inflation pressure.
The new BFS chip, currently undergoing field testing by Ryder System Trucks, has the potential to ``revolutionize tire maintenance programs,'' according to Walt Weller, BFS division president for truck tire sales.
BFS said it expects to have the system on the market within a year, though its price has not yet been determined.
The Nashville-based company said it is willing to work with other tire makers in developing RFID technology, and a BFS spokesman said several companies have expressed an interest in doing so.
Mr. Weller predicted RFID technology will ``significantly reduce the number of man-hours devoted to tire maintenance and drastically improve tire wear and fuel efficiency.'' In the case of a large national truck fleet, he added, the annual savings could be millions of dollars.
Meanwhile, Goodyear, which pioneered several semi-automatic tire-tracking systems, has been awarded a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to advance the development of its own RFID technology.
Goodyear's current RFID or smart chip is capable of providing identification only. However, the grant money will be used to expand the chip's capabilities to include air pressure, internal temperature and, ultimately, revolutions per mile, according to Al Cohn, marketing manger, commercial systems engineering.
Goodyear hopes to have a commercial version of this chip ready for market during the first half of 1996, Mr. Cohn said.
Meanwhile, the company currently offers two types of computerized tire identification systems.
The first, known as Goodyear's Tire/Vehicle Tracking system, allows users to track and link the performance between medium truck tires and vehicles.
The other, called GTracs, uses bar code technology to allow retreaders to trace tires through the various stages of processing.