By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
As Americans try to squeeze every last mile out of a gallon of gasoline, one regulatory option hasn't been given much of a road test: telling consumers the fuel efficiency of their tires.
Now, as gas prices have hit $4 a gallon and more, the idea of reducing tire "rolling resistance" to improve vehicle gas mileage is gaining traction. After 12 years of blocking any such standard, Congress has ordered a consumer information program by next year to inform buyers on what to expect from tires on fuel economy.
The $34 billion tire industry was long divided on the issue. Michelin North America has favored a standard and has started running ads extolling the gas-saving virtues of its tires. Other manufacturers lobbied Congress to block any rule requiring that tires be labeled to indicate their fuel efficiency.
"We were very vocal and pushed for it," said Michael Wischhusen, director of industry standards and government regulations for Greenville, S.C.-based Michelin, a subsidiary of French tiremaker Michelin & Cie. The annual ban was other manufacturers' "defense against progressive thinking," he said.
Daniel Zielinksi, spokesman for the Rubber Manufacturers Association, a Washington trade group, said the industry now agrees on the new requirement to inform buyers about the fuel efficiency of tires. For years, most companies opposed the idea of displaying such information on the tires.
"We advocated that rather than more information on the sidewall, better the information be required at the point of sale," Zielinski said.
Michelin supported a new tire efficiency grading standard proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1995. A year later, the agency said it dropped its proposal because of opposition, which included a funding cutoff.
Michelin had been working on "green" tires since 1992, saying its tires could save fuel without "compromising durability and traction."
"Right now, that [tire efficiency] data is not widely available," said Luke Tonachel, vehicles analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York. He said that information would be "cost-effective for consumers and the nation to reduce oil use."
Some 200 million replacement tires are purchased annually in the United States. Few consumers take into account how much energy, and thus gas mileage, is lost through their tires.
The savings could be considerable.
A 2006 study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that it was feasible to reduce rolling resistance by 10 percent. This would increase the fuel economy of vehicles by 1 to 2 percent, saving up to 2 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel annually.
Michelin said that over the past 15 years, its energy-saving tires have reduced fuel consumption worldwide by about 2.38 billion gallons, compared with conventional tires.
Vehicle manufacturers are keenly aware of the role tires can play in meeting federal fuel-economy standards. They generally install original tires that have less rolling resistance -- and sometimes less life expectancy -- than replacement tires.
One reason consumers are in the dark over whether the tires they choose will cause them pain at the pump is that there is no federal mandate to disclose the efficiency of tires as there is for temperature, tread wear and traction.
The congressional ban, first passed in 1996, said there could be no federal rule adding to existing grading standards that would require a certain level of fuel efficiency.
Some manufacturers argued that an emphasis on rolling resistance could affect tread wear, safety, cost and the number of tires that ended up as scrap.
"This was their effort to prevent a national performance standard," Tonachel said of the bans.
A 1998 Senate report explained that the prohibition covered "any rulemaking which would require that passenger car tires be labeled to indicate their low rolling resistance, or fuel economy characteristics."
In 2003, California passed a law calling for a consumer information program and a requirement that replacement tires be at least as fuel efficient on average as the tires that originally came on the vehicle, taking into consideration safety and cost effectiveness.
Zielinski said the planned federal consumer information program will achieve the same goals as earlier proposals, rating tires for their relative fuel efficiency among brands. All the major manufacturers think the program will empower consumers "to choose the performance traits they want."
The traffic safety agency is supposed to have a rule in place by the end of 2009 to standardize how the information is gathered and displayed.
Tiremakers expect the annual ban to keep being passed. As Zielinski put it, "We are not advocating its removal."
Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist for Bloomberg News. She can be reached email@example.com.