AKRON-If you think the idea of ``talking tires'' is science fiction, better think again. Tires that monitor and communicate their internal air pressure and temperature are closer to commercial reality than you might think. Right now, so-called ``smart tires'' containing active or battery-powered computer chips are being evaluated by Miami-based Ryder System Inc., one of North America's largest truck leasing companies.
Ryder is conducting the shakedown on what presumably will be the final prototype of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s ``Active Computer Tag'' which the tire maker hopes to put on the market next year.
Goodyear, Michelin North America and Sumitomo Rubber Industries Ltd.'s SP Tyres U.K. Ltd. also are known to be working on active micro chip technology. However, none of these companies has announced a timetable for bringing such tires to market.
The 256-byte micro chip used by BFS was developed by Computer Methods Corp. of Lavonia, Mich. The tag was the result of a cooperative effort between CMC, Amtech Systems Corp. of Dallas and BFS.
The system's battery was designed to last 10 years-hopefully, long enough to carry the casing through its entire service life, including multiple retreadings. For the present, the use of such chips is confined to truck tires.
Designed to be embedded in the tire at the time of manufacture, each tag consists of a battery, micro chip and a small antenna. The self-activated or ``active'' micro chip provides the tire with a unique identity and can be used to continually monitor air pressure and internal temperature.
This so-called ``real-time'' information then is relayed via an RF (radio frequency) signal to a computer, where it can be viewed, stored and processed using appropriate software into charts, graphs and other types of reports needed for tire management purposes.
The system is a time-saver, since trucking firms typically spend 20 minutes per vehicle manually checking air pressure.
Ryder has been cooperating with BFS in the development of the Active Computer Tag for about two years, according Vincent E. Fortuna, vice president or maintenance of Ryder Commercial Leas-ing & Services.
Besides BFS, its primary tire supplier, Ryder also has been working with Goodyear on similar technology, he said.
At Ryder locations in Miami and elsewhere, the signals generated by these micro chips are ``read'' automatically as the test vehicle pulls up to the service island for refueling, Mr. Fortuna said.
This tells Ryder service personnel whether any of the vehicle's tires are underinflated or running hot and therefore needing immediate attention.
Meanwhile, information obtained in this manner also is compiled into tire performance histories used by Ryder officials in managing the rolling stock on the company's fleet of 203,000 tractors, trailers and straight trucks.
Mr. Fortuna said he's impressed with the way these so-called ``smart tires'' are performing in the company's tests.
He foresees widespread use of such tires within five years when he believes they also will become part of more extensive monitoring systems telling home-office personnel by satellite the exact location of each vehicle, its speed and the condition of its operating systems. That too could become a reality by the year 2001, Mr. Fortuna believes.
Despite industry concern over whether such electronic components can withstand the rigors of cross-country freight hauling, Mr. Fortuna said his company has experienced no particular problems with the durability of the BFS micro chips. Thus he expects developers to focus most of their attention on reducing the chips' size and weight (neither of which has been disclosed by BFS).
A spokesman for BFS said the biggest difficulty encountered to date has been going from a prototype to mass production chip. ``But we're overcoming that,'' he assured.
BFS hopes to undertake limited production of the tags later this year with an eye toward placing tires equipped with them on the market in 1997, Mr. Taylor said.
BFS debuted its tire tracking software program, called the Tire Management System, in March at the Orlando, Fla., meeting of The Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Association.
The software allows dealers and fleet users to enter inflation and other data manually until the day smart tires become sufficiently available to automate this information-gathering process.