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Consumers still clinging to spare tire

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CLEVELAND—Most car companies would love to eliminate the spare tire and save the precious weight and space it takes up, but don't look for it to happen in the near future, according to Ford Motor Co.'s global chief engineer for tire and wheel engineering.

That's because customers around the world largely aren't comfortable with the prospect of losing the safety blanket of a spare, and auto makers, above most everything else, want to please their customers, according to David Rohweder, who delivered a keynote address at the recent International Tire Exhibition & Conference (ITEC) in Cleveland.

Most likely car makers will have to focus their efforts on convincing the next generation of drivers they don't need a spare tire, he said, because the majority of the current driving population is stuck in the belief that spares still are the best way to deal with a flat tire.

In addition, car makers still are seeking viable spare tire alternatives because those currently available can't satisfy extended mobility needs in all markets around the globe, he said.

One reason that the spare tire won't disappear any time soon is that the priorities of car customers and auto makers aren't always in alignment. Mr. Rohweder said drivers want greater personal convenience, personal safety, independence, the ability to get to a service center to continue their trip and no tradeoffs.

While these expectations are fairly universal, he said, they can mean different things in different countries, such as personal safety.

“In places like Brazil,...” he said. “you're actually worried about being kidnapped and held hostage. This whole concept of personal safety takes on a whole other meaning.”

So Ford is hampered when looking at building global platforms, where one vehicle design is sold in all markets around the world. There still are markets where customers expect to get a fifth full-size tire, he said.

“Probably the most important thing we see is that customers don't want to have a flat. They don't want to be inconvenienced. They accept it to some extent, but they don't really.”

Car companies have their own set of priorities, including reduced cost, lower weight, lower rolling resistance, improved driving attributes, ability to focus on global platforms and regulatory compliance.

The more stringent Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that will take effect in coming years mean that car companies will do everything they can to reduce weight and lower rolling resistance.

In the end, Ford will strive for greater customer satisfaction.

“All the things on that first list of customer needs I do care about even though they don't show up at the top of my list,” he said. “And we will take drastic actions to try to improve customer satisfaction.”

Flat tires remain an issue, accounting for 27 percent of the times drivers stop on the road, according to data Mr. Rohweder presented. Nearly half of those polled in a survey said someone in their household had a flat tire in the past year, and 80 percent personally had a flat in the last 10 years.

Of those, 60 percent said the flat tire was a minor inconvenience, 30 percent said it was major and 10 percent felt a risk to their safety—figures he said shifted depending on which country the driver was from.

The temporary spare remains the most prevalent technology in use, although it's still not universally accepted. Pickup trucks generally have full-size spares, though sometimes they are dissimilar from the OE set because of lack of tire supply.

The foldable full-size spare—which requires the customer to inflate it before installing it—is an option used in Europe, primarily in sports cars.

The use of inflation kits—an external pump and a chemical-based tire sealant—in place of a spare tire is on the rise among car makers, but these still require the driver to hook up the kit and inflate the tire, Mr. Rohweder said.

This is considered a temporary repair, and drivers who use them are instructed to get the tire inspected and repaired properly—or replaced—as soon as possible. Tire repair legislation being considered theoretically could classify a tire fixed with a sealant/inflation kit as unrepairable and therefore would have to be scrapped, Mr. Rohweder said.

Some tire makers void the warranties on their tires when certain sealants are used, Mr. Rohweder said in comments before his address. Ford, for one, he said, covers owners' tires for several years under the new car bumper-to-bumper warranty coverage.

After that coverage runs out, though, car owners have to depend on the tire makers' warranty coverage.

Runflat tires—both of the self-supporting and insert variety—have some place in the market but haven't proved to be an answer for the masses, Mr. Rohweder said, while self-sealing tires are beginning to make a bit of a comeback and may help bridge the gap to get customers to realize they don't need a spare.

Mr. Rohweder challenged the tire industry during his presentation, suggesting a “self-healing” material—as opposed to “self-sealing” materials—might prove to be the breakthrough to cutting tire-related mobility problems.

Non-pneumatic tires, such as Michelin's Tweel and other similar concepts, detract from the car's styling and he said he doesn't see these as being viable in the near future.

No single solution available currently satisfies the customer and leads to the next century of needs and what is expected to be provided in terms of extended mobility, the Ford executive said.

And the only way to ever truly get rid of the spare will be to convince the next generation that is just starting to learn about cars.

“I always tell people I need to convince my children we don't need spare tires because I figure my generation is stuck,” he said. “We're pretty much not going to change.”

Bruce Davis, Tire Business staff, contributed to this piece.
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