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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: May 18, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

    Sticking to labels

    Neil Briscoe

     

    As and from next month, you’re going to start seeing white labels attached to new sets of tyres that you buy. It’s an EU initiative, one designed to help consumers be better informed about the tyres that they buy and the performance of same. The labels are pretty simple really; similar to the ones we’ve already seen on fridges, kettles and washing machines for many years. A graduated colour bar indicating different bands of performance for both wet weather braking and rolling resistance and a separate panel that shows, in decibels, the loudness of the tyre on a drive-by test.

    All useful stuff. Wet weather braking is an obvious concern and with, it’s estimated, a 3-to-6-metre increase in braking distance for every jump in the bands (regimented A-to-G, just as with motor tax bands) there’s an obvious and immediate benefit in going for an A-rated tyre.

    That said, the demands of wet weather braking and rolling resistance are at opposite ends of the engineer’s skill-set, so finding a balance between the the two is a tricky compromise. Rolling resistance is exactly what it sounds like; the amount of turning force you have to apply to overcome the natural resistance of a tyre to roll forward; something that has a direct and significant bearing on both fuel economy and emissions. The trouble is that the hard compounds of natural and synthetic rubber needed to make a tyre with low rolling resistance are the exact antipode of the soft, sticky rubber needed to ensure wet weather performance.

    All of which is just the tip of a round, rubber iceberg (or lifebelt, possibly) that the tyre companies themselves are in a bit of a duality about.

    Required and enforced by the EU, the labeling system has been leaped on by the mainstream tyre makers as a tool to drag customers away from cheap-o Asian brands, which come with a tasty price tag but which are the technological equivalent of fitting some Polo Mints to your wheels. The theory goes that once consumers check the labels and see how poorly the cheap tyres perform, they’ll come running back to the major brands.

    “There is a risk of consumers not understanding the labeling” Peter Robb from Continental Tyres told us. “In terms of how we’re prepared, in terms of the material and the training of our tyre retailers, I think that type of issue will hopefully be minimised.

    “A lot of things go into making a tyre, in terms of the performance focus of the tyre. A lot of people just think tyres are round and black but in terms of what they’ve actually got to be able to deliver, they’ve got to supplement the vehicle you’re driving; they’re the only contact you have on the road. There are things outside the label that they’ll have to achieve excellence in; wet and dry handling, dry braking, in car noise. All these things are very important. The vehicle manufacturers themselves require excellence in all areas for a tyre, in the replacement market there are very few requirements, at least until the labels come in.”

    Which raises a serious issue with the labeling system. Rolling resistance, wet braking and noise are all significant items to be aware of but they are barely scratching the surface of what a tyre needs to do and the various ways in which its performance can be measured. Creating a label that covers all aspects would clearly be nigh-on impossible, but it does seem to be selling the consumer somewhat short. In fact, the labels are already out of date and will be revised in 2016 to provide separate ratings for winter tyres.

    There is a much bigger problem in terms of customers merely seeking to buy the cheapest possible tyre from a name that they recognise (or even just a country that they recognise in some cases) and then keeping those tyres in good condition once they’re on the car.

    The labeling system simply doesn’t cover people who don’t check their tyre pressures (most of us) or who never think about tread depth until NCT time (ditto), but these are far more vital to the performance of a tyre fitted to your car than anything that’s on a shop label. There is a legal requirement, of course, to maintain your tyres in a decent condition, but as Paddy Murphy, the boss of Continental in Ireland told us: “In 30 years of driving, I’ve never had a Guard check my tyres at a checkpoint.

    “It has been stated that if all the Guards did was run around and visually check the tyres, without taking any further action, that would be enough to scare people into sorting their tyres.”

    That’s a feeling echoed by Stephen Lynch from Dunlop: “The tyre industry – manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers – has invested heavily to adopt this legislation and given our full support to its implementation. It is now time for the national authorities to support this effort with a surveillance and enforcement programme that will ensure the objectives of the legislation across the EU – both in terms of road safety and the environment – are met. Surveillance and enforcement are also required to ensure a level playing field for all EU and non-EU manufacturers.”

    The problem is that there is little or no enforcement. Neither the EU nor the Government has even yet appointed a body to inspect and enforce the labeling system, in spite of the fact that it will be compulsory from November. All of which seems to place a lot of responsibility on an already over-stretched Garda force, when in fact it’s down to individual responsibility. The problem is that, in Ireland at any rate, individual responsibility is rarely met with an appropriate individual response.

    So why not abandon the labeling system, and take the responsibility away from consumers who are only interested in price and instead just make all tyres to one, high, standard? Then the choice is simply down to brand loyalty or price and everyone gets a good tyre.

    “In an ideal world that would be a good thing” says Peter Robb. “But that’s the problem of tyre development, only a certain few can make tyres to that standard. So if you say all tyres have to achieve that standard, you’ll probably clear a lot of the makes of tyres out of the marketplace. The research and development needed to produce tyres to the highest level is only done by the premium manufacturers.”

    A touch of tyre Communism needed, perhaps? From each according to his pocket, to each according to his rim size.


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