LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Tires will eventually get smarter. You can take that to the bank. Right now, though, just consider them in school, with graduation at least several years away.
Much has been written and ballyhooed about so-called ``smart tires''—the ones containing tiny computer chips that will be able to tell everything about it, from where the tire's been and who it's been with, to how many times it's been retreaded, how many miles it ran and at what temperature.
Those in the know say that's just what the trucking and tire industries need and want.
In 1992 The Maintenance Council (TMC) of the American Trucking Association conducted market research on what trucking fleets want in tire tracking systems. Some 90 percent of those surveyed were interested in it, with many saying they needed a system that would provide computerized record keeping, since the majority were doing that manually. Almost half told TMC that tracking would benefit the trucking industry and that they needed it. Now.
At the International Tire and Rubber Association's Louisville trade show, three experts in the field of computerized tire tracking discussed its status and use in tire-making and in fleets.
Kevin Lutz is project manager of tire-related technology for Michelin North America. Al Cohn is Goodyear's marketing manager for commercial tires, and John Fischer is president of Pittsburgh-based Signal Software.
The consensus about such systems seems to be that there's a long wish list for what retreaders and fleets want them to do—such as the storage of data on tread depth, tire make, model, DOT numbers, number of retreadings and price. But a chip that will do all that is still years away.
Systems also could offer a unique identification number for each tire, inflation pressure data and operating temperatures.
However, the technology that is available today offers:
A ``walk-around maintenance system'' so an operator can check inflation pressure with either a tire gauge or special valve stem monitors;
An in-cab monitoring system that reads air pressure as the truck is moving, via wheel-mounted sensors; and
A controllable inflation system to monitor/adjust tire pressure.
Future systems could include a computerized tag read by a ``wand'' as it passes over a tire, Mr. Cohn said, or a ``roll-by'' system where data is recorded via an antenna or radio frequency sensors.
Other considerations, he said, should include tire cost; database maintenance to prevent overloading with obsolete but archivable information; and analysis of why a tire was taken out of service.
Since operating cost per mile is a fleet's bottom line, Mr. Cohn said it is critical that tire price be included in any system's database.
Mr. Fischer called a tire tracking system within a retreading operation the ``information highway flowing around the plant floor.''
Its use could increase productivity and profitability, improve plant maintenance—via equipment such as bar code readers and portable computers on the shop floor—and enhance service.
But a key benefit is that it could monitor the status of each tire in the plant at all times, he said. It also should be able to interface with point-of-sale and business management software programs.
Michelin's Mr. Lutz was asked if there is a system currently available that will read eight tires as they roll by a fleet maintenance station. ``That will eventually be possible,'' he answered.
Durability of the computerized tire chips has long been a concern of both tire and chip manufacturers, Mr. Lutz added. ``The chips must be able to withstand multiple retreadings'' and thousands of miles of driving and abuse.
Market and customer demand will drive the introduction of chips, he said. ``But while the technology is not yet available for certain applications, that doesn't mean it is not technologically possible.''
Eventually, practically any type of chip will be technologically feasible, Mr. Cohn believes. The real challenge is to make it affordable.
And that seems to be the rub.
Paraphrasing an old wine commercial, he said no chip will be released ``before its time.''
``The technology changes so quickly in this area....It should be available soon—in our lifetime,'' Mr. Cohn joked.
But at least in the short term, more sophistication may come at an increased price.
``So if you don't like to spend money, better get out of this business,'' one retreader shouted.
Mr. Cohn later told TIRE BUSINESS there are chips being tested that will do a lot of what retreaders and fleets require, but the biggest drawback is the cost—in the ballpark of $6 to $15 per chip.
``Everybody wants all these features, but no one wants to pay anything for them,'' he observed.