What's happening to the U.S. Environmental Agency's SmartWay list of verified fuel saving truck tires? Last year, there were 325 steer, drive, all-position and trailer tires on the list. In the last year alone 287 tires were added to the list, bringing the number of verified tires to 612, an 88% increase. In addition, the number of tire brands has more than doubled, from 93 to 193. Those stats come from our sister publication, Modern Tire Dealer, who reported on the change earlier this year. A great portion of the new entrants to the SmartWay list are from overseas, China in particular.
This massive influx of tire brands may offer a broader selection for the consumer, but it isn't necessarily anything to stand up and cheer about. Retreaders are nervous about it. At some point, it may also grab the attention of safety advocates and the enforcement community. The prices of some of the tires on the list are too low to ignore, but you have to think about what you're not getting for your money.
When I first saw the vastly expanded list, I was struck by the number of brand names I have never heard of. So, I decided to pick out a few names and do a little research. I Googled about a dozen of the names and tire models. Several didn't even show up in a search, but many did, and when I checked pricing I found they were offered in the $100 to $150 range.
Many of the tires I googled were available only on E-Bay, and several of those were offered by the manufacturer in container lots only, directly from the manufacturer, paid in advance of shipping.
There were others that apparently have gained a marketing foothold here and were available at retail, but not through traditional tire outlets; rather, through import/export businesses and other locations that I suspect are not traditional tire service centers.
Before we go any further, it should be noted that not all Chinese tires are to be feared. Several manufacturers are now offering good quality tires that can be retreaded, often multiple times. These brands have been in the North American market for a while, and their makers have learned through experience what it takes to produce a competitive tire for this market.
"There are a couple Chinese brands that make some good truck tires now, but they are not as cheap as some of the new additions to the SmartWay list," says Peggy Fisher, president of Tire Stamp and long-time participant in many of ATA's Technology and Maintenance Council's tire task forces. "They do provide fleets that are looking for a decent but inexpensive tire an alternative to first- and second-tier tires."
According to Harvey Brodsky, managing director of the Retread Tire Association, Chinese manufacturers have done their research, and they know now that U.S. carriers will not go back to a tire they have had repeated bad experiences with.
"They understand that if they want to eat our lunch, which they are doing, they will need to increase the quality their product," he says. "Otherwise it's just going to be a one-time buy."
Names like DoubleCoin, Sailun, Hercules, Aeolus, Roadmaster and others, including familiar names that are manufactured in China, have passed the market test and are commonly found on North American wheel ends.
"Those trusted names won't cost next to nothing like some of these newer brands do," says Brodsky. "Some of them are solid Tier 3 tires now, but I know DoubleCoin, for one, has set its targets on becoming a Tier 2 tire within five years."
What do you get for $150?
What do you get for $150? Not much that would interest a large, profitable fleet.
Fisher says she believes some of the tires, despite being on the SmartWay list, are coming in with no DOT codes, which makes them illegal to sell in the U.S. She also cautions that these companies may not stand behind the warranties they offer.
"Fleets should be reminded to always look at cost per mile when making a tire purchase decision," she says. "Often the cheapest tire is not the most cost effective.
"I believe the people that are buying these $150 drive tires are running on their shoe strings," he says. "Those kinds of tires can make sense when $150 is all you have in your pocket."
Interestingly, that price point is what you could expect to pay for a quality retread on your own casing – and that has retreaders looking over their shoulders.
"Retreaders have a hard enough time convincing some fleets to retread, and it's going to get tougher when fleets catch on to the fact they can buy a new tire for the same price as a retread, or even less," says Broadsky. "It's not such a problem for retreaders with major service contracts with big Top 100 fleets. They know enough to steer clear of the cheap junk. It's the smaller, less sophisticated fleet our members are worried about. They are still a large part of the market."
Fisher agrees, adding, "Many of these tires are not retreadable in the first place, but they are taking the place of retreads and hurting the retreading industry. You may recall that cheap imported tires were the death of the passenger retread industry. They are certainly a threat to truck tire retreading now, although the big, profitable fleets will never buy them."
So how did these tires wind up on the SmartWay list? SmartWay does none of its own testing; it accepts manufacturer's test data and if that data meet its standards, the program verifies the tire.
"It is relatively easy to become a SmartWay verified tire," Fisher says. "All tire manufacturers have to do is provide proof that their "fuel efficient" tire saves at least 3% or more in fuel consumption relative to their own best-selling new tires for line haul tractors when used on all three axles. There is probably a very wide range of fuel efficiency when you compare tires on the SmartWay list. It is likely that most [of these cheap] Chinese tires are not what we would consider fuel-efficient at all when compared to the Tier I tire manufacturers' SmartWay-verified tires."
Earlier, I mentioned the safety advocates and law enforcement as parties of interest in this discussion. We all know that roadside tire debris attracts a lot of unwanted attention, and the DOT has tire damage and condition guidelines in its out-of-service criteria. Therefore, it's reasonable to ask what might happen if these tires manage to gain a decent toe-hold in the market, and then start popping all over the place.
Tire maintenance isn't most fleets' strongest suit, and for the fleets likely to buy and use these tires, it might be close to non-existent. If we were to see a rash of tire failures, one has to wonder if officials will stop to consider the source of the debris, or just launch a crackdown on everyone for poor tire maintenance.
One has to assume good Tier 1 or 2 tires at $500 or so will be more tolerant of abuse or neglect than a tire costing 20% of that.
"You have to consider what you're getting for $100," stresses Brodsky. "If you were to weigh a brand new Tier 1 11R22.5 tire, you'd find it weighs about 120 pounds. If you weighed one of those really cheap Chinese tire, I'd bet my paycheck it would weigh no more than 80 or 90 pounds. You're not getting high quality rubber or steel in that tire. Where's the muscle? You can't build a high quality tire for that kind of money."
Our sister publication, Modern Tire Dealer, printed the full list in its June issue dedicated to truck tires. It's available here. Or you can visit the SmartWay web page to view the original list for yourself.