Marketing low rolling resistance

April 8, 2014
Looking back at SmartWay’s impact on the tire market

This year marks the tenth anniversary of SmartWay, a public-private initiative from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to improve fuel efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the national supply chain.  According to the EPA, SmartWay partners have saved 120.7 million barrels of oil (resulting in $16.8 billion in fuel savings) and 51.6 million tons of carbon dioxide over the past decade.  They are impressive figures until you consider that the United States consumes about 19 million barrels of oil a day (which means we’ve saved less than a week’s worth of oil in the past 10 years) and generates more than 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year.

As to truck tires, SmartWay has created a new market for products that are designed to reduce rolling resistance and improve fuel economy.  Anyone looking for proof can check the EPA’s website and find 68 tire brands that cover more than 250 models of truck tires that are approved along with 12 retread brands and 38 tread designs.  How many of these tires are verified as the result of advanced rubber compounding and/or tread design, and how many rely mostly on shallow tread depth?  When 68 different brands can achieve the coveted SmartWay designation, it’s either a testament to manufacturing or a relatively easy target.

Despite EPA’s claim that low rolling resistance (LRR) tires can reduce fuel consumption by 3%, it’s a much more complicated exercise to complete the data collection and perform the mathematics in order to convince the accountants.  There are a wide variety of factors that contribute to the fuel mileage of a commercial truck and trailer; the 18 tires are just one of them.  And while low rolling resistance tires and retreads play a role, I believe the jury is still out when trying to decipher how much of an impact they actually have on fuel consumption.

In the passenger and light truck replacement industry, the tire companies have spent millions to communicate the advantages of fuel-efficient tires.  But the most innovative marketing campaigns in the history of tires have not been enough to convince most consumers that the extra cost for LRR technology is worth it.  The hybrid-driving environmentalist crowd energizes the market more than anyone, but the payoff isn’t there so most drivers consider cost the most important factor followed by durability.  Since they don’t have to worry about SmartWay or cost per mile like fleets, it’s a completely different decision-making process.

I have to admit that I was shocked to see how minimal the gains have been in the past 10 years.  But savings are still savings and reduced emissions are undoubtedly a benefit to everyone on the planet and a step in the right direction.  I also know that the SmartWay program has created a lot of new companies and thousands of jobs related to the different types of technology that are improving fuel efficiency and eliminating some of the carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere.

Rather than be critical of the EPA and the public perception that drives SmartWay, I’ll just tip my cap to the agency for making a difference without creating significant burdens for trucking.  With more than 3,000 partners, it appears that participation has grown since 2004—and that is definitely a good thing.  But LRR tires are not going to provide instant fuel mileage gains.  The savings are still there; it’s just going to take the continued marketing advantages associated with SmartWay and some time/effort to fully realize the benefits of fuel-efficient truck tires.

Kevin Rohlwing can be reached at [email protected]

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