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Published on March 26, 2007

Run-flats are on the firing line

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Opinion

AKRON (March 26, 2007) — When it comes to run-flat tires, the tire industry and auto makers have a real perception problem.


Like it or not, it's an issue they must address before these products have any hope of becoming prevalent and more widely accepted in the marketplace.


When BMW A.G. decided several years ago to fit run-flat tires as original equipment on many of its models, it appeared the run-flat age had indeed arrived.


American Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor North America then added to that impression when they began offering run-flats as options respectively on the Acura RL and four-wheel-drive version of the Toyota Sienna minivan and as standard equipment on the 2005-2007 Honda Odyssey Touring edition minivan.


Former Goodyear CEO Sam Gibara was so pumped about the potential of run-flats that he predicted in 1998 the tire maker would move the majority of its production capacity toward them by 2003 and incorporate the technology into 70 percent of its tire lines.


Though the promise of run-flats is alluring, so far they haven't lived up to the hype.


And now these products have come under fire from consumers, spawning several class-action lawsuits over dissatisfaction with the high cost of run-flats and difficulty in getting them serviced.


Also hurting run-flats' potential are tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS), now required on all new passenger vehicles, that warn drivers when their vehicles' tire pressure is low.


“TPMS diffusion may actually mute long-term run-flat tire demand, because pressure warnings will reduce the likelihood of catastrophic blowouts caused by gradual pressure loss,” a speaker at the Clemson Tire Industry Conference said recently.


Still, run-flats offer significant benefits to auto makers and consumers, including the elimination of the spare tire, which reduces vehicle weight and opens up more design space. They also provide consumers piece of mind, allowing them to continue to drive for a period should the tires lose air.


So what must the tire and auto companies do to make run-flats more viable? Part of the problem is that it's a communication issue.


Auto makers must insist their dealers explain to customers that the vehicle they are purchasing is equipped with run-flat tires. Many of the complaints come from people—unaware they had run-flats—having to deal with sticker shock after realizing how expensive they can be to replace, not to mention the difficulty in servicing them.


Tire makers, too, need to do a better job preparing their dealers for run-flat tire work, including ensuring they have the proper equipment to service the tires and how to handle customer complaints. After all, it's the tire retailer on the front lines who's likely to be dealing with irate customers.


The fortunes of run-flat tires won't change overnight, but dealers better get used to handling them—it's unlikely they'll be going away.

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