DETROIT—While auto suppliers had accelerated development of tire pressure sensors before the Firestone tire recall, they say a requirement to equip all vehicles within three years—included in a bill recently passed by Congress—would outstrip current production capacity.
The tire pressure controversy involved in the recall has been seen as an opportunity to market the technology. Thus far, though, the market hasn't widely embraced it, said Greg Janicki, vice president of CSM Worldwide Inc., an automotive forecasting and marketing firm in Northville, Mich.
Current tire pressure monitoring systems fall into two categories:
1. One system uses the wheel-speed sensors in the antilock brake system to detect minor differences in tire rotation. A deflating tire gets smaller, so it rotates faster. If that occurs, a warning illuminates on the instrument panel. It is relatively cheap to add this capability to ABS, as the wheel speed sensors cost automakers just $5 to $8 a wheel.
2. A more sophisticated and expensive system uses a sensor mounted inside each wheel to monitor tire pressure and transmit a signal to the vehicle's control unit. This system provides the actual pressure reading in each tire. It is usually used with run-flat tires.
In 1999, these more sophisticated 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.
Installation of tire pressure monitors is increasing, but suppliers generally don't have high-volume deals and production in place. So several companies will benefit from any mandate.
"I don't think that one company will be able to handle (the resulting demand), because the volumes will be enormous," said Eduardo Vultorius, sales manager for Beru Corp. in Novi, Mich., a subsidiary of German supplier Beru A.G.
Since 1997, Beru has sold 100,000 sensor systems to BMW, Mercedes and Audi. Sales for the 2001 model year are projected to equal that three-year total.
General Motors Corp. has sold more than 1.6 million vehicles with tire-pressure monitors since 1997, most being the ABS-type. The systems are standard on 11 GM models, and the auto maker plans to expand their use.
Though some suppliers are increasing capacity, widespread production of the sensors isn't taking place.
In January 2001, Beru will more than triple its capacity to 500,000 systems annually when a new plant opens in Bretten, Germany. TRW Inc. will make a sensor system—which includes a black-box recorder to address liability and warranty issues—going on four European models early next year, and Schrader-Bridgeport International Inc. also is producing sensors, some of which are used by GM.
Johnson Controls Inc.'s sensor system will be available on two models in North America for 2002 using the supplier's HomeLink electronic communications system to receive and display the tire inflation information. Johnson Controls also launches an aftermarket initiative in January; sales of 30,000 or more are expected the first year with a retail price of $350 to $400.
Even though it has sensor technology, Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. has yet to make production plans. Continental Teves and Visteon Corp. also have sensor systems but no current production deals.
ABS system may lead
Installation of the ABS monitor could come faster, suppliers say, as that technology requires only additional software programming.
It also would be a cheaper upgrade for less expensive cars—especially those that already have standard ABS.
A tire-pressure monitoring mandate also could increase standard installation of ABS, Mr. Janicki said.
Continental Teves has up to 12 contracts—Audi is one customer—for its ABS-based system for the 2002 model year and beyond. (The company also has a pressure system on the shelf, but no production deals.)
Mark Sowka, vice president of electronic brake systems for Continental Teves, said that, "given the current environment, we are in discussions (with auto makers) to get it to market earlier."
French auto maker Renault is equipping its new Laguna—a competitor to the Volkswagen Passat and Ford Mondeo in Europe—with tire-pressure sensors on all versions. That patented system, developed jointly with tire maker Group Michelin, can detect a slow leak or simply incorrect inflation.
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."
Crain News Serviceers Gail Kachadourian and Robert Sherefkin in Detroit and Stephane Farhi in Paris contributed to this story.