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U.S. law to mandate tire monitoring devices

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Out-going U.S. President Bill Clinton signed a bill into law last month that calls for legislation within three years to mandate tire inflation monitoring devices on all new motor v...

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Out-going U.S. President Bill Clinton signed a bill into law last month that calls for legislation within three years to mandate tire inflation monitoring devices on all new motor vehicles, including heavy-duty trucks, manufactured in the U.S.

The law is officially known as the Transportation Recall Enhance-ment, Accountability, and Docu-mentation Act, or the TREAD Act. After being introduced on Sept. 13 by Republican Congress-man Fred Upton, the original bill passed quickly through the legislative process, making it to the president’s desk on Nov. 1. Clearly not the central focus of the legislation, the call for inflation monitoring systems is buried in a sub-section of the law under the heading “Tire Pressure Warning,”

The specific section reads:

“Not later than one year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation, acting through the National High-way Traffic Safety Administration, shall complete a rulemaking for a regulation to require a warning system in a motor vehicle to indicate to the operator when a tire is significantly under-inflated.”

The legislation requires the Secretary of Transportation to introduce meaningful inflation monitoring legislation no later than two years after the TREAD rules have been finalized. That means the devices could become standard equipment on all vehicles built in the U.S. as early as 2003.

According to Mike Waldron, press secretary for Congressman Upton, the legislation was inspired by the recent rash of deadly SUV accidents caused by defective tires.

The tire defect at the root of the accidents was apparently first detected on vehicles in South Amer-ica some time before the problem began occuring in North America. Although thetire manufacturer was apparently aware of the defect, a North American recall was not issued for some time. The new law aims to curb similar actions.

The new law primarily requires vehicle manufacturers to report to the Secretary of Trans-portation on defects in tires or other components that occur both domestically and in foreign countries.

Waldron says the provision calling for the inflation monitoring devices actually came out of congressional hearings into the SUV tire problem.

“Throughout the hearing process, it was apparent that tire inflation was part of the problem. And Jacque Nasser (Ford chief executive officer) actually testified that this kind of technology was indeed available,” Waldron says. “As a result, when we were crafting the legislation, we had input all along as to the feasibility of the provision.”

Obviously, passage of the TREAD Act has caused quite a stir among companies that already manufacture tire inflation monitoring devices. Many are already quite active in the heavy-duty truck market, where such devices are commonly used in off-road applications.

Gary Schultz, production manager for tire management systems for Dana’s Spicer Tire Management Systems, says meeting the three-year deadline should be no problem for vehicle manufacturers because inflation-monitoring devices have been around for years and do work.

“They were originally developed to allow military vehicles to get track-style traction on certain terrain. We had something like 6,000 units in operation during Desert Storm,” Schultz says. “They are plumbed right into the vehicle air system and allow the operator to inflate or deflate to a pre-set level when they press a button.”

Schultz says inflation-monitoring devices have been adapted to heavy-duty trucks over the course of the last six years. The devices first found commercial acceptance in forestry and construction applications where tire inflation has a direct impact on traction and tires are more easily damaged.

“We studied what causes rubber to shred from truck tires and found that, in 85 to 95 per cent of cases, it was not only due to retreads, many were new tires,” contends Schultz. “Most tire failures were caused by under-inflation.”

Schultz says the Spicer system uses a sensor on each tire that signals a warning light in the cab of the vehicle if the tire drops pressure 10 per cent from its initial setting. The warning light even flashes out the exact number of the under-inflated tire. The system is also compatible with all existing fleet management systems so that fleet managers are alerted to under-inflated tires at the same time as the driver, allowing them to co-ordinate repair arrangements if necessary.

Richmond, B.C.-based SmarTire Systems also markets an inflation-monitoring device, but unlike Spicer, it is currently concentrating on the passenger vehicle side of the business.

The rim-mounted SmarTire sensor transmits inflation as well as temperature data wirelessly to the vehicle. The company is working on a device specifically for heavy-duty trucks right now, the company says, that it hopes to have on the market within the next six months.

According to Schultz, it currently costs about $1,200 to outfit a tractor-trailer combination with a complete tire inflation monitoring system in the aftermarket. But as the systems become more common, he adds, especially in light of the TREAD Act, that price will likely come down considerably.

“Over time, we expect the cost to come down to the point where you will be able to outfit an 18-wheel vehicle for between $600 and $700,” Shultz says.

Waldron says the cost to consumers of implementing the new law was never much of a consideration when the TREAD Act was being drafted. n

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