You don't need me to tell you that maintaining correct tire inflation pressure across a fleet of trucks and trailers is a challenge of biblical proportions
. Even if road damage and punctures weren't an issue, a tire will lose a couple of pounds of pressure a month through osmosis. Pick up a nail or a bit of steel somewhere and a tire could drop to half its operating pressure in less than a day - if it's not completely ruined.

If your drivers aren't diligent in their trip inspections, a leaker may go unnoticed and could eventually become another of the thousands of chunks of rubber littering the Interstates.

If only that was all you had to worry about.

Soft tires play havoc with fuel economy, they are prone to irregular wear, miles-per-thousandth are reduced dramatically, and casing values suffer too. Then there are roadside service calls, outrageously expensive replacements, downtime, service failures, loss of customer confidence, unhappy drivers...

What would you pay to make all that go away? At the risk of oversimplifying the equation, tire pressure monitoring systems can relieve much of your tire-related stress - but only if you are informed and in a position to do something about it.

Real-time feedback on low-pressure events is a quantum leap from pleading with drivers to do real tire checks. But what good is all that information if it's provided only to the driver? Visual warnings such as blinking lights or wheel-mounted gauges are useful, provided your drivers are willing to take the next steps - airing up the tire and checking for the cause of the low-pressure warning - but what if they just won't take the next step?

Carl Tapp, vice president of maintenance at P.A.M. Transport of Tontitown, Ark., says he sees drivers split into two camps here. The prudent ones will stop and attempt to rectify the problem. Average drivers, however, will place tape over the warning light and keep going.

"I don't want to leave that decision up to the driver," Tapp says. "He has nothing in the tire, but he knows that stopping will cost him time and money, and maybe a missed appointment. I need to know that I have a tire issue so I can advise the driver how to proceed."

Get the Message Out

TPMS with telematic data transfer capability hands control of the situation over to dispatch and the maintenance department. Tapp says when alerted to a problem, he can locate a suitable repair facility en route, advise them that there will be a truck coming in, and instruct the driver to have the tire repaired.

"Sounds simple enough," Tapp says, "But there have been hurdles to jump over getting here."

P.A.M. worked with Pressure Systems International (which makes the Meritor Tire Inflation System by P.S.I.) and Qualcomm to establish the link, but it's still not quite where Tapp would like it.

"We can alert the driver and send him to a repair facility, but when he arrives, we have no idea which tire is running low because the PSI is keeping up the pressure," notes Tapp. "I want the inflation system working to save the tire, and the monitoring system telling us which tire is bad. We're still trying to get the inflation people talking to the monitoring people."

As these two technologies have evolved, it seems they've been on opposite sides of the building. Actually, getting data from the truck to the terminal isn't the challenge; the stumbling block has been creating a place for the data to land.

Phil Zaroor, CEO of Advantage PressurePro, says there is a lack of back-end software written for tire management systems. While that information can be transmitted, you can't do anything with it until the software applications are written.

"Of some 22 telematics providers we work with, only seven have written software applications to accept the tire pressure info and document it," he points out. "Those applications can provide useful tire management information, such as how often it was low, how often it needed to be filled, how well it performed, how long it held up, tire wear, tire problems, etc."

Bridging the Gap

TireStamp offers a product, TireVigil, designed to work with TPMS to get that information back to the fleet. TireStamps technology acts as a "bridge" between the tire sensor systems and telematic technologies.

"Turning on a light on the dash has some merit," the company says, "but we take that several steps further by ensuring that anyone in the fleet who needs to know about a vehicle with failing tire pressure is notified, even if they are away from their e-mail by sending the information directly to their cellular telephone or other handheld communication device." It also offers advanced reporting and analysis capabilities.

There are clear advantages to integrating tire pressure monitoring and inflation systems, and tying them both to a telematics platform that can deliver all that data and turn it into a useable and useful tool. It's beginning to happen, so ask your provider what's being done on that front.

Factor future expansion and growth into your buying decision - and don't forget to ask about backward compatibility. You don't want existing platforms rendered redundant by development on this front.

Take Control

When you consider everything associated with a tire or wheel-end failure, the potential costs are staggering. From lost driver productivity and utilization to the raw tire and repair costs, right up to the fines levied by some shippers for service failures, you have a pretty compelling case for staying on top of your tires and wheel-ends. I say wheel-ends here because of the potential built into some TPMS systems for out-of-normal temperature warnings (think brakes, bearings, etc.).

A simple red blinking light might not be enough to target the difficulty. On the other hand, a 5-psi pressure drop caused by a change in ambient temperature might be more than the driver needs to know about. The fleet, on the other hand, can filter and sort incoming data and advise the driver of what needs done. Pushing those decisions upstairs takes the responsibility off the drivers' shoulders, says Frank Sonzala, vice president of sales and marketing at Pressure Systems International. "It gives the fleet some leverage in choosing the right course of action."

Data transfer capability and tire management applications are with us now, to some degree, as are inflation and monitoring systems. What's been missing is integration, but that is beginning to happen. If fleets keep driving these problems back to the manufacturers, and they can figure out how to make a little money off the problem, it looks like tire management might actually become less onerous as we move forward.

Knowledge is Power...and Money

With many TPMS providers boasting 24/7 monitoring capability, and pressure reporting gradients down to 2 psi, what's a fleet to do with all that data?

Jesse Lopez, director of maintenance at TSI Equipment Inc. in Mesquite, Texas, flags out-of-parameter data for further attention. His fleet uses Stemco's AirBAT RF Driver Alert TPMS, which he describes as an idiot light for the driver. But the real value, he says, lies in the tire data that can be harvested from the uploads.

"The driver gets a blinking-light low-air-pressure warning at the wheel-end, but I get a report of how long the tire has been in service, its inflation and service history, and a report on the actions the driver or technician took when the truck returned to the shop," says Lopez. "The drivers and techs are really happy because we've all but eliminated the chore of checking tires, and I'm really happy because I've cut my roadside tire service costs way back."

There could be an even more compelling reason for fleets to demand tire data tracking, says Phil Zaroor, CEO of Advantage PressurePro.

"We could be looking at trading carbon credits in the near future, and if a fleet can pro