DETROIT (Sept. 20, 2000)—Even before the Firestone tire recall, automakers had begun adding tire-pressure monitoring devices to new vehicles. But with tire pressure a central issue in the controversy, suppliers and auto makers have new opportunities to market the technology.
Already, at least one supplier—TRW Inc. of Cleveland—is getting calls from interested auto makers, including Ford Motor Co. And Ford CEO Jac Nasser last week told a congressional committee investigating the recall that the company will look into adding an instrument panel indicator to alert drivers of potential tire problems.
Existing systems work two ways:
1) In one, wheel speed sensors on antilock braking systems are programmed to detect changes in a tire´s rolling radius caused by air loss. The driver then is notified by an instrument panel light. This low-cost system can´t identify the problem tire, so pressure in all must be checked.
2) A more sophisticated and costly system mounts tire pressure and temperature sensors on each wheel. A reading indicating the specific low-pressure tire then is displayed to the driver.
So far, the market hasn´t widely embraced the technology, said Greg Janicki, vice president of CSM Worldwide Inc., an automotive forecasting and marketing firm in Northville, Mich.
In 1999, for instance, tire-pressure sensor systems were on 36,000 vehicles equipped with run-flat tires, according to CSM. Those cars are the Chevrolet Corvette and Plymouth Prowler, on which they are standard, and Lincoln Continentals, on which the run-flat system is a $640 option for 2001. The sensors cost auto makers $50 to $75 a wheel, translating to sales of less than $11 million a year.
CSM doesn´t track use of the ABS detection systems; wheel speed sensors, however, cost auto makers just $5 to $8 a wheel and already are on many vehicles.
Installation rates of the warning systems are going up, however.
General Motors already has a mix of the ABS and sensor systems— supplied by Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. of Troy, Mich., and Schrader—Bridgeport International Inc. of Monroe, N.C. - installed as standard equipment on 11 of its models. The automaker has sold more than 1.6 million vehicles with the feature since it was introduced in the 1997 model year. Expansion to other vehicle lines is planned, officials say. A few European makers also use the devices.
Suppliers are getting new orders.
The new Renault Laguna—a competitor to the Volkswagen Passat and Ford Mondeo in Europe—is equipped with tire-pressure sensors on all versions. That patented system, developed jointly with Group Michelin, can detect a slow leak or simply incorrect inflation.
TRW´s sensor system—which includes a black-box recorder to address liability and warranty issues—also will be standard equipment on a European model with conventional tires early next year. It will go on three more European lines using run-flat tires around the same time.
"There has been some interest from the American OEs at the moment, pretty much on high-end vehicles," said Alain Charlois, director of business development and program management for safety and security systems at TRW Automotive Electronics. "Recently there have been questions coming from Ford, as you might guess."
Continental Teves hasn´t seen a measurable bump related to the recall. Interest, however, already is there. It has contracts for its ABS system for 2002 model year programs in North America and Europe. Audi is one customer. The company also has a pressure sensor system on the shelf, though no production deals have been secured.
But the Firestone crisis should create additional potential.
Said Renault CEO Louis Schweitzer: "In the future, customers won´t accept a car that will be unable to give information about the tire pressure."
Ms. Wilson writes for Automotive News, a sister publication of Tire Business. Stephane Farhi of Automotive News Europe in Paris also contributed to this report.