New European tyre labelling could save money and lives
On 1 November, new European tyre labelling regulations come into force that could make driving safer, more economical, less polluting and less noisy.
Slamming the brakes while doing 50mph in the wet really makes you think.
It obviously takes a while before the car stops, so in addition to the inevitable end-of-life flashbacks there is even time to be smug about being strapped into a car renowned for its safety record in a crash.
But that is not the way to think about it, according to Christoph Kalla, head of research and development at chemicals company Lanxess's rubber division.
Rather than merely being concerned about what happens in the event of a collision, drivers should do more to prevent accidents from happening in the first place.
By the time the Volvo comes to a standstill it has travelled 32 metres, according to test equipment fitted in the cabin.
That is not great, according to the man from Michelin, one of the tyre companies running the demonstration.
He blames the car's low-quality tyres and suggests a trial in an identical Volvo that has been kitted out with high-spec tyres instead.
Predictably, perhaps, the more expensive tyres perform better than the cheap ones.
Less predictably, however, is how much better: the car stops after just 25 metres, which means the difference could easily be life-saving.
In fact, in extreme situations a car with bad tyres might travel almost twice the distance of one with good tyres before coming to a halt, according to Mr Kalla.
"The consumer needs to be aware of this," he says.
"It's amazing how much money people are prepared to pay for airbags, yet they don't want to spend money on tyres that can shave off up to 18 metres on their braking distance."
Consumers also need to be aware of the dramatic impact tyres can have on fuel consumption. Expensive tyres could actually be more economical over time.
"Some 20-30% of the fuel consumption of a car can be attributed to the tyres that make up the interface between the car and the road," Mr Kalla says. Hence, reducing a tyre's rolling resistance is a relatively simple way of reducing fuel consumption.
When comparing the two Volvos as they are allowed to roll freely down a quarter-mile section of the track at Millbrook, Bedfordshire, it turns out that the car with budget tyres comes to a halt first. The quality tyres have a 7.5% lower rolling resistance, so they keep on going for a few more yards.
There are many other additional factors involved, such as engine performance and so on, so to simply translate this into a 7.5% reduction in fuel consumption and harmful emissions might be a step too far.
But given that budget tyres can cost less than £40 each while premium tyres sometimes cost twice or three times as much, what can be said is that in monetary terms the savings could equate to the price of two or three tanks of fuel per year, which is enough to pay for a few tyres.
In the past, when faced with the choice between a confusing array of similar-looking round bits of black rubber, tyre buyers would generally consider two things - brand and price - according to Paul Everitt, chief executive of the UK's Society of Motor Manufactures and Traders.
And as any tyre dealer will tell you, the vast majority of people would think twice before paying extra for a fancy brand.
In recent years, global prices of the fossil fuels used in tyres have shot up, however, so tyre prices have risen across the board even when there has been no corresponding rise in their performance.
"Until 10 years ago, it was primarily a cost game, which in turn used to be a labour game," explains Mr Kalla. "But now the cost of materials is more in focus than labour costs."
As tyre purchases become major investments for people, increasingly they want to know exactly what they are getting for their hard-earned cash.
In Europe, new compulsory tyre labels are introduced on 1 November to help shed light on how tyres perform according to three categories:
- braking distance in the wet;
- exterior noise;
- rolling resistance - which in turn is an indication of fuel economy and thus harmful emissions levels.
Similar labelling systems are being introduced elsewhere too. Japan has introduced a duty system; Brazil is working on tyre-labelling legislation, and the US is expected to introduce labels after the election.
"Tyre labelling is spreading around the world," says Mr Kalla.
This means dealers will have to change the way they operate. In the past, some of them have made just as good or even better profit margins from sales of low quality tyres. With transparent labelling systems in place, they will find it much more difficult to compete on price alone when selling tyres.
Similarly, the impact of greater transparency on tyre manufacturers around the world could be enormous.
"It's one of those game-changing events for the industry as a whole," says Mr Kalla.
Meeting tyre-labelling standards will be seen as a competitive advantage for manufacturers, while low prices will in many cases fail to mollify consumers worried by low scores.
Hence, the tyre makers are having to rethink the way they do things. In particular, many of the low-budget tyre makers are upping their game.
Research and development
That may be easier said than done, however.
After all, it is not easy to get the balance right between conflicting laws of physics - the challenge is to get more friction to aid braking, while making it compatible with less friction to reduce rolling resistance, all with the same tyres.
Add the requirement to reduce tyre noise and it becomes apparent that the question of tyre quality is much more complex than it first seems.
To deal with the new realities, tyre manufacturers are increasingly focusing on high-level research and development, competing with each other in a race to hire the best tyre- and materials engineers.
Their task is to increase the use of silica or other chemical compounds that help improve performance in several areas at the same time.
"With modern materials, you don't have to compromise," says Mr Kalla. "You can reduce the rolling resistance without reducing braking capabilities."
Labelling gives consumers the tools they need to choose the right tyre for their actual needs, not just for their budget, but the European system has one serious flaw, according to many in the industry - there is no measure for durability.
Consequently, even now, consumers will still not be able to work out the lifetime cost of their tyres.