Safety 411

Published monthly in Fleet Owner, Safety 411 is a timely and informative commentary on safety and security issues by David Heller, CDS, TCA’s Vice President of Government Affairs.

Rising diesel prices make the right tire and retread choices important

By:  David Heller, CDS

With a promising economic outlook, the prospects for trucking and vehicle transportation in general are improving. Since 2015, the Federal Highway Administration has reported steady growth in vehicle miles traveled. Coincidently (or not), the average price of diesel fuel has increased from a 21-year low of $1.99/gal. in February of 2016 to $2.84/gal. on May 1 of this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). EIA also predicts that the average price of diesel will remain around the $3/gal. mark through the end of next year.

Looking back, what started as a marketing program by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2004 when the average price of diesel was $1.80/gal. turned into serious business when prices doubled seven years later. Even the smallest improvements in fuel mileage translated into big savings when fuel prices were in the $4/gal. range, so it makes sense that the list of SmartWay-verified low rolling resistance (LRR) tires and retreads has grown every year since it was first released.

In 2004, that bar was pretty high. As a result, fleets had a limited number of options. Since then, the list has grown to thousands of models from hundreds of manufacturers, many of them unrecognizable and undistinguishable.

Fuel prices are climbing with no relief in sight, so fleets need to be more conscious than ever when selecting tires and retreads. The SmartWay verification has reached the point where differences between the mathematical bottom of the list and the top of the list are significant.

At the bottom, there are a lot of no-name offshore brands that claim to meet LRR requirements. Since there is no policing mechanism, these tires may or may not deliver the type of fuel savings that carriers need to move the needle on fuel mileage. On the other end of the spectrum, the differences between the first generation of LRR tires that populated the list in 2004 and the best of the current makes/models on the market today cannot be understated.

Like all of the conditions that determine truck tire and retread cost per mile, SmartWay verification is simply an indicator—not the indicator of performance. There is no way to look at a list of more than a thousand tires and say model “X” will save “Y” dollars for fleet “Z”. Math sells truck tires, and over the next year and a half at a minimum, that will be even more important than ever.

Calculating tire and retread cost per mile only by the price of the rubber without considering mileage can lead to unrecognized savings. When fuel is $3/gal. or more and the long-term outlook is for steady or climbing prices, every penny not saved is a penny or two lost. The best advice for carriers that want to receive the maximum benefits of the most fuel-efficient tires and retreads is to test, retest, and then test the tests.

Fuel efficiency and low tire costs are affected by more than just the tire itself. Without a quality inflation pressure maintenance program, all the technology on the planet will never translate into any noticeable savings. Underinflation negates the gains from LRR compounds and tread designs. Ignoring tire pressure in the cost-per-mile game is like taking expensive medicine to combat high cholesterol while maintaining a constant diet of bacon cheeseburgers, fries, and milkshakes.

Other factors like vehicle alignment, routes, and even more important, the driver, have an effect on total cost per mile. Tire tests must be structured so the same basic vehicles on the same basic routes are compared. Drivers should have similar driving styles so the ones that ease into acceleration and deceleration are not tested against the lead foots and hard brakes. While the dollars and cents ultimately represent undebatable math, tests can still be manipulated to tilt the scale in favor of one tire or against another.

Fuel economy will continue to be a hot topic. Maintenance departments are going to start feeling more pressure to improve mileage using every available technology. If fleets want to see the savings associated with LRR tires and retreads, it’s going to take a lot more work than just relying on the SmartWay list. The returns are there when the math adds up, but it’s important to understand that data cannot be trusted when all of the factors are not considered in the same equation.

“Math sells tire trucks, and over the next year and a half, that will be more important than ever.”