WASHINGTON-The proposed tire rolling resistance/fuel economy grade is a simple, cost-effective way to encourage consumers to buy fuel-efficient tires and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their cars. Or, it's a useless, confusing, ``ivory-tower'' theory that will compromise tire traction and treadwear, save little or no fuel, reduce few if any carbon dioxide emissions, and cost tire manufacturers and consumers millions of dollars.
It was a game of ``Whom Do You Trust?'' at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration headquarters July 28, as tire makers, congressmen, consultants and consumer advocates testified both for and against the agency's proposal to replace the current temperature resistance grade in the Uniform Tire Quality Grading System with a grade for rolling resistance and fuel economy.
Leading the proponents of the rule change was Clarence ``Red'' Hermann, vice president of product engineering for Michelin North America. Michelin first recommended a tire fuel economy grade to President Clinton, who incorporated it in his Global Climate Action Plan in October 1993.
All the proposal will do, according to Mr. Hermann, is encourage tire makers to incorporate in their replacement tires the lower rolling resistance they already put in their original equipment tires.
Automakers insist on low-rolling-resistance tires as an aid in meeting federal fuel economy standards. A rolling resistance grade will allow tire buyers to seek out the same fuel savings they received from their OE tires, Mr. Hermann said.
``Some opponents are suggesting that low-rolling-resistance tires would compromise safety,'' he said. ``To suggest that there is a safety compromise is to suggest that the expected 15 million new cars which will be purchased in North America in 1995 with low-rolling-resistance tires are unsafe. We know that's absurd.''
He was supported at the hearing by engineering consultant K.G. Duleep, spokesmen for consumer advocacy groups and Rep.John Spratt, D-S.C., who said a tire fuel economy grade is ``one way we can marry what consumers want to what's good for the environment.''
Lined up against Michelin was virtually every other North American tire maker, representatives of the private brand tire industry, consultants Jim Tozzi of Multinational Business Services Inc. and Harold Herzlich of Herzlich Consulting Inc., and Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Ohio.
Opponents attacked the proposal on every point. Rudolph Bauer of Dunlop Tire Corp. questioned Michelin's estimate that a 4-percent drop in fuel consumption could be achieved by a fuel economy grade.
``If as many as 60 percent of replacement tire buyers would buy low-rolling-resistance tires, at best a fuel savings of 1.3 percent could be achieved,'' Mr. Bauer said, quoting Dunlop estimates. ``Four percent is unrealistically high. The actual figure would be well under 1 percent, possibly zero.''
Michelin was accused of being self-serving in promoting a fuel economy grade, saying the company was really promoting its high-traction, low-rolling-resistance XSE technology, as well as monopolizing supplies of the high-grade silica needed for the XSE tread compound.
``The real-world effect of this rule is that tire makers will try to meet the Michelin standard, and Michelin has a lock on it,'' said Richard Teeple, vice president and general counsel for Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. He said the fuel economy grade would be ``like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,'' creating ``a minimum rolling resistance standard which everyone else will have to shoot for.''
That could jeopardize tire safety, said Cooper Technical Vice President Dick Stephens.
``Tire design and development is a compromise,'' he said.
``An individual tire's performance will be a tradeoff of various performance characteristics. . . . An emphasis on rolling resistance, with a resulting reduction of traction, is not a choice our people want to make. But this rule will make it one we're forced to make.''
Because the hearing also involved several other UTQG issues, several commenters turned it into a referendum on the grading system.
``Goodyear's position on Uniform Tire Quality Grading standards has remained unchanged over many years,'' said James C. Whiteley, Goodyear vice president of government compliance and product quality. ``We do not believe that the current system provides the consumer with accurate and useful information.''
``(T)he UTQG levels have become confusing and relatively useless when compared to their original goal,'' added Steven E. Buck, vice president and general manager of Hercules Tire Co., a division of Hercules Tire & Rubber Co.
``(They are) strictly a marketing tool. . . . If you contacted 10 tire dealers and asked them to explain treadwear ratings and equate them to tire mileage, you quite possibly would receive 10 different explanations.''