With Changing Technology, OE Focus, Do Old Winter Tire 'Standards' Need Updating?
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With Changing Technology, OE Focus, Do Old Winter Tire ‘Standards’ Need Updating?

What exactly is a “winter tire?” The answer is much more complicated than you might think, and begs even more questions. Like: When is a “winter tire” not a “winter tire?” Or: What makes an “all-season tire” an “all-season tire?” These questions lead directly to the concept of providing consumers with a proper and correct tire that will allow them to safely navigate harsh winter road conditions.

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These new requirements won’t actually take effect until November 2012, but some European tiremakers are already working to them.

The Japan Automobile Tire Manu­facturers Association follows the M+S and mountain/snowflake requirements laid out by the RMA/RAC and ETRMA.

Last December, it was learned that Transport Canada and Canadian tire companies were looking at new, tougher winter tire standards. Nigel Mortimer, head of recalls for Transport Canada, said standards for displaying the mountain snowflake logo should be tightened.

“There’s a gentleman’s agreement there,” he told CBC News. “But if we get some offshore company, XYZ corporation decides to do it and fool the consumer into thinking this is a winter tire, then, yeah, that’s a concern to us.”

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Also siding with tougher standards is Canada’s Automobile Protection Association, which believes current standards leave drivers at risk.

“There is a possibility of either counterfeiting or of just putting a logo on a product which hasn’t been tested, but which you believe could pass the test,” APA president George Iny told CBC News.

Even tires that legitimately carry the mountain/snowflake logo have only met minimum standards, Iny says, and may not meet the needs of winter driving across Canada. APA, he says, tested a number of top brand tires and found a wide variation in performance.

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There is no timetable for any proposed changes, and no word how any action north of the border might impact U.S. standards.

Dealing With Differences
Tire Rack prides itself on being expert, knowing tires inside and out and being able to translate that information to consumers of all types and knowledge levels. And as a unit, Tire Rack probably sells more winter tire than any single retail operation in North America.

So it’s little wonder Tire Rack is particularly interested in making sure customers are not only getting the tires they need, but that those tires will deliver on their performance promise.

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To get customers on the right tire, Tire Rack looks at geography and intended use, said John Rastetter, director of tire information. “Driving needs create differences in winter tire needs.”

Rastetter uses an example involving identical BMWs, one in Chicago and one in a rural area of Illinois. “Chicago has pretty good snow removal and lots of traffic on the expressway. For someone in an urban area in that application, we would recommend a performance winter tire. In essence, a performance winter tire is what we feel an all-season tire should be. Capable of good wet/dry traction, but it doesn’t flounder when you experience some snow.

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“Go to a rural area, where the driver has to travel 10 miles of county road before he gets to the expressway; well, those roads aren’t going to be plowed as well,” he says. “With a fair amount of traffic, the snow gets packed down and creates an ice base. Now we have a different need, and we would recommend a studless winter tire because that will give drivers the capability to get out of their snow-covered driveway, hit the packed snow roads and conveniently get to the expressway.”

While that seems to be a pretty basic application picture, it gets fuzzier when you consider other factors. For instance, even with the current loose definition, not all winter tires are equal.

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Toyo Tire & Rubber Co. engineers, for example, consider winter tires based on the geographic region of origin.

According to Mamoru Yamamoto, tire technical service department manager for Toyo, there are distinct winter tire types sold into the North American market. There are easily discernable physical differences – tread and shoulder shape and tread patterns in particular – and less visible differences demanded by prevailing weather.

There is a Scandinavian type that is tuned to the harsh climate and snow/ice roads of that region, Yama­moto points out. European-type winter tires are more about wet traction and higher road speeds with only occasional snow and low temperatures. Japan/­Asia winter tires have to address heavy, packed snow but not sub-arctic temperatures.

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North America tends to see all three types, thanks to its broad geography, average winter temperatures that run from 0˚F to 32˚F, and varying degrees of snow removal. Yamamoto points out, though, without understanding the prevalent weather conditions, road surface care and even driver attitude, dealers could be misapplying winter treads on customer cars.

Large, global tiremakers tailor their winter tire offerings to the specific conditions of individual markets, he notes, but tires from smaller companies may be tuned only to their home market conditions. Bottom line: Not all winter tires are alike.

Carmakers & CAFE
Complicating the winter tire scene, says Tire Rack’s Matt Edmonds, vice president of marketing, are carmakers and the fuel-efficiency pressures they face, and tire companies chasing lower rolling resistance. And it comes on a number of fronts.

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All-season tires, by and large, have less aggressive tread designs than 7-10 years ago, Rastetter notes, because of greater emphasis on reducing road noise and improving rolling resistance vs. winter traction.

“Part of that is reflected in our surveys where top makers of the OE all-season tires are at the bottom of the chart,” he points out. “Winter-time driving puts you on the slipperiest roads you will face all year, and if carmakers need an OE tire with enhanced rolling resistance to help their CAFE average, that’s what they are going for.”

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Recently announced changes to CAFE standards and an accelerated timetable for implementation has impacted the snow traction qualities of all-season tires even more. Remember, it doesn’t take all that much to be labeled an “all-season tire,” and tractive qualities aren’t even considered.

While rolling resistance can be lowered with different tread compounds, another way carmakers and their OE tire suppliers are tackling CAFE standards is through shallower tread depths. Where OE tires once came with 10/32nd or 11/32nd tread depths, many of today’s OE tires roll off the line at 9/32nds, Rastetter says.

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Another CAFE standard trick carmakers employ is to specify straight summer tires instead of all-season. “And it’s growing,” Edmonds says. “You have more cars coming OE with summer tires and people don’t know it. You look at your Camaros and Mustangs and VWs. VW now puts in its owner’s manual a warning that the vehicle is equipped with summer tires, and that they are not for winter use.

“But how many drivers will see that in the owner’s manual?”

Away from the OE market, a tire’s contribution to fuel efficiency is also a major issue. More and more tiremakers are offering so-called “green” tires, or eco tires, that reputedly deliver lower rolling resistance and, therefore, fuel savings for owners.

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Getting to that level, though, means less concern for winter traction and more emphasis on lowering rolling resistance.

“All-season tires do everything average,” says Edmonds. “Today, can you trust your all-season tires to even be average?”

Working the Edges
As you read above, on paper the North American standards that define both all-season and winter tires leave a lot to be desired – and in more ways than one.

“Right now what we have is a two-bin system,” says Rastetter. “It either is or it isn’t a winter tire. But there is no definition between a ‘good’ and a ‘great’ winter tire.

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“The standard for a winter tire is to be better than the reference all-season tire, but it is also low enough that you could get an all-season or even an all-terrain light truck tire that could be 10% better,” he says. The lack of tighter standards or any “good-better-best” performance levels has created unnecessary confusion among dealers and consumers, he says, and has diluted the idea of winter tires.

“It really started when the mountain/snowflake was seen on the side of all-terrain tires or more aggressive highway all-season tires for light truck applications,” Rastetter says. “In reality, before we had true winter tires, those are exactly what we would have recommended for a light truck application anyway.”

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There was nothing illegal about what was happening, he says, but those tires really weren’t winter tires, they were above average all-season tires that exceeded the industry standard and qualified for the mountain/snowflake symbol.

“It appears that there had been a gentleman’s agreement that the mountain/snowflake symbol would only be on dedicated winter tires,” he says. “I don’t know what changed, but some companies building all-terrain light truck tires thought this was an opportunity. The sad part is that an all-terrain tire could give you 111% improvement and a winter tire could give you 130% of the performance, but they both get to carry the mountain/snowflake symbol. There is no differentiation.

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“The second half of the problem is that it doesn’t take much design to produce an all-season tire – and there is a complete lack of any performance criteria,” Rastetter says. “The definition is so open for interpretation. At the same time, I guess the definition is so old to begin with, it hasn’t evolved with tire technology.

“But there is something wrong, as a promise to the consumer, in allowing that much dispersion of characteristics. You have a base tire at 100, an all-terrain tire at 110, a performance winter at 115 and then you have a studless winter at 120. I don’t know where they draw the line on the percentage, but I wish they didn’t have a two-bin system that doesn’t differentiate. A consumer just can’t tell which is better than the other.

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And it’s not just winter tires that Rastetter feels require some differentiation. “Because there is enough testing confidence now to tell the difference between 100 and 110, should the industry consider establishing a stronger minimum standard for an all-season tire?” he asks. “Say, if the baseline is 100, then you can’t be worse than 75 or 80 and still be an ‘all-season’ tire. I don’t know what that number should be, but you can’t have a 44 and be called ‘all-season.’ You can’t have something that’s less than half as effective and still claim to be an all-season tire. But without some type of grading system, the consumer or the dealer has no clue of the difference.

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“The majors have standards that they try to build to,” he says, “but as you look at the globalization of the industry, I’m not so sure a Chinese manufacturer or an emerging market manufacturer is going to have those kind of standards.”

Given that cars, drivers, tire technology and regulatory demands have changed substantially over the last 30 years, there is no doubt it is time for the industry – perhaps led by its associations – to consider tighter, more consumer-beneficial standards for all-season and winter tires.

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