How many products can you name-other than tires-that over the years have vastly improved in performance while decreasing in price?
It's a fact. Not only do today's tires deliver improved performance compared with those of decades past, they actually cost less-even before factoring in the effects of inflation.
Never mind that in the early days of motoring, tires priced out at as much as $100 apiece and accounted for up to 25 percent of the cost of the vehicle-at a time when the typical industrial worker earned less than 25 cents an hour. And that tires of the early 1900s seldom lasted more than 500 miles or that serious motorists in those days carried as many as six spares.
``All that's ancient history,'' you're probably thinking. ``More importantly, how do today's tire prices compare with those of a more recent time period?''
As surprising as it may seem, today's broadline tires-although superior in most every way-still sell for less than their counterparts of the 1980s and 1990s!
According to the U.S. Labor Department's Producer Price Index, which charts manufacturers' pricing on a month-by-month and year-to-year basis, the cost of a typical radial passenger tire has declined 7.8 percent since 1981 in North America.
By comparison, median family income during the same 22-year period rose 18.8 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, thanks to inflation, most other goods and services that cost $100 in 1981 now require you to cough up $202.20.
Since 1995 alone, tire makers' prices on all-season type radials (with the exception of high-performance models) have decreased 6.3 percent. Moreover, truck and bus tire prices have declined even more steeply-plummeting a whopping 24.7 percent over the last 22 years, according to Producer Price Index data.
Asked if she considers tires underpriced, Alison Heiser, former vice president of marketing for Michelin North America Inc.'s Michelin Americas Small Tires unit, noted that industrywide tire prices have lagged the Consumer Price Index in the U.S. for the last two decades or more.
``It's not uncommon,'' she said, ``to find people buying tennis shoes for more than they pay for tires. It is true that tires are far better than they were 20 years ago, but industry forces and a lot of different issues have kept prices low.''
Better than predecessors?
So how much better are today's tires than their predecessors? Tire Business asked a number of tire company technical experts.
Goodyear's Larry Toops, manager of global product performance and industry standards, responded that 30 years or so ago, motorists had to replace tires frequently simply because they lacked the durability of today's products.
``You couldn't go on a long trip without making sure your spare was properly inflated, and your other tires as well.'' Yet even after taking such precautions, he said, ``often you still had a flat on that trip. Now if a flat occurs, it's usually because you hit something that caused a penetration.''
Guy Edington, managing director of Kumho Tire Co.'s North American Technical Center in Akron, said ``there's absolutely no comparison between the performance of today's tires and those of 30 years ago.''
Mr. Edington, whose own career in tire development spans roughly those same three decades, said even the dry-pavement traction and handling of the street tires available in those days wouldn't measure up to the wet-surface performance of today's high-performance tires. ``They're that good,'' he said.
Raymond J. ``Ray'' Labuda, vice president of tire technology at Hankook Tire Co. Ltd.'s Akron Technical Center, pointed out that decades ago there was little in the way of computer modeling that now gives tire engineers and designers the ability to develop and test tires even before the first prototype tire becomes a reality.
``Tire making used to be a black art. Now it's engineering and chemistry-much more than it used to be 30 years ago,'' Mr. Labuda said.
He noted that years ago, the tire industry sold a considerable number of ``blems'' and ``seconds.'' But today, with so many manufacturers having a ``first class-or-scrap'' production policy, one seldom finds either of these two product classifications offered on the open market.
Likewise, the industry used to do a lot of ``force-'' and ``balance-correction'' (shaving or grinding off tread) on passenger tires to make them roll more smoothly. ``That still takes place, but the amount of correction is much reduced from what it used to be.
``Uniformity is another improvement over the last 30 years,'' Mr. Labuda said.
Along with performance improvements resulting from better manufacturing materials and technology has come an ever-widening selection of tire types, each offering its own particular advantages in terms of performance and costs, Kumho's Mr. Edington said.
The radials of the early 1970s in North America typically were ribbed tread tires, he said. ``Now you've got a proliferation of various types of tires-three to four levels of all-season tires, entry-level as well as high-performance touring tires, ultra-high-performance summer tires-a wide range of available products. And that speaks only to the product side.
``At the same time, tire manufacturing itself has gotten so much better,'' said Mr. Edington, who then proceeded to list a number of improved compounding materials and processes that didn't exist until recent years. Those include ``solution SBRs, high-styrene polymers'' and increased use of silica reinforcement.
These and other technical achievements, he said, have made it possible for manufacturers to improve tire performance in some areas, such as lowering rolling resistance and enhancing traction and handling, without having to trade off other benefits such as treadwear.
J. Steven Carpino, director of research and development for Pirelli Tire North America, noted that besides delivering more than twice the treadwear of their predecessors 30 years ago, today's passenger tires boast significant advancements in other respects, such as emergency handling, resistance to aquaplaning and overall durability.
As for the improvement in treadwear, many tires today outlast the 44,000-mile national average. And almost every tire maker offers a 70,000-, 80,000 or even a 100,000-mile passenger radial, he said.
Older tire buyers probably already are aware of the increase in tire treadlife, Mr. Carpino said. ``But you can see the same kind of improvements in other performance areas, such as tread noise and riding comfort.''
The tires' contribution to increased riding comfort may be less obvious because vehicle suspensions too have been improved over time. But tire improvements have been a major contributing factor, he said.
Thanks to such technological breakthroughs, manufacturers have been able to optimize tires for specific driving requirements, said Mike Wischhusen, director of industry standards and government regulations for Michelin Americas Small Tires. ``This is what makes an ultra-high-performance passenger tire different from a sport-utility vehicle model,'' he said.
Goodyear's Mr. Toops pointed out that most of a vehicle's components serve only a single function, whereas tires must perform several jobs at the same time.
The tires, he said, not only need to support the vehicle's weight (which amounts to almost 10 times their own), they also must revolve approximately 600 times for every mile traveled, endure extremes in temperature and survive all sorts of hazards such as chuck holes and roadway debris.
``Consider what is taking place internally in and around the contact patch as it rotates around the tire,'' Mr. Toops said. ``What other product can carry that much load, withstand that kind of heat and take so much abuse? We're talking about a structure whose primary support is air. It's really just a balloon-but what a durable balloon.''
John E. Rumel, Goodyear's manager of global product standards and regulations, estimated that a typical P225/60R16 passenger tire undergoes more than 30 million revolutions in a lifespan of more than 40,000 miles.
Goodyear Director of Product Performance Linda M. ``Lyn'' Lovell added that working with personnel from the government-sponsored International Laboratories has provided the company with feedback on how a team of non-industry experts might assess the complexity of designing and manufacturing tires.
``They liken it to the modeling of nuclear weapons,'' said Ms. Lovell, referring to comments made by International Laboratories representatives after learning how tires are designed and made. In terms of all the performance parameters a tire must meet, continued Ms. Lovell, ``they said it is as complex or even more complex than nuclear weaponry.''
All of which begs the question: ``If tires are so good and so complex to design and produce, why are they underpriced?''
Speaking as a marketing specialist, Ms. Heiser listed several factors influencing tire pricing, such as abundant manufacturing capacity worldwide, the original equipment marketplace, big-volume discounters and even ordinary tire dealers who sell mainly on price.
``A lot of independent dealers don't give enough credit to their own business model, which is based on service. Consumers are willing to pay for service and yet we continually see a reluctance to charge for that service,'' she said.