In the early 1990s, I spent a lot of time working with fleets to find tire combinations that worked best in their applications. One particular customer allowed drivers a lot of influence over the decisions, which led to different setups on almost every tractor. The owner's theory was that his drivers were hauling hazardous materials in custom trailers all over the country in all types of weather, so they were the ones who should decide when the tires needed to be replaced or serviced.
Bill was a driver for this customer. He was a Merle Haggard look-alike right down to the leather vest and could back a trailer between two sheets of glass with less than a foot on each side. Bill was top dog, with his name on the door of the truck, and hauled the most sensitive loads to the most difficult places, so we had to keep him happy — and he knew it. Now keep in mind, he was hauling hazardous materials out of Chicago to places all over the U.S., which meant he spent more than enough time fully loaded and empty in the snow. In the years that I worked with Bill, he never drove a truck with traction tires on the drive axles. The other drivers would call him crazy, but Bill didn't care. We talked about it a lot because steer tires on the back were so different, but he always said it comes down to three things: One, he never wrecked (his words); two, he never got stuck; and three, he always made the delivery.
Bill readily admitted that his biggest risk was stopping on snow. It didn't make much of a difference as far as wet stopping because nothing evacuates water from the footprint of a tire like a groove, which is the primary feature of a “steer” tire. Almost all of his driving was on paved roads that were regularly treated with salt or some other ice-melting material, so he rarely had to stop the truck on snow or ice. He figured that the majority of the time he was driving on dry Interstate highways, so why not take advantage of the smoother and quieter ride. When the roads got slick, he slowed down or put on chains.
Looking back, I've noticed that the drive tires of today are not radically different than the drive tires of 20 years ago. Open tread blocks on the shoulders may have been replaced by solid ribs, but the same basic principles of drive tires are still in place. Does the modern drive tire still maintain the traction “look” because the operating conditions demand it or the drivers need it like a pair of lucky boots?
The tire companies already add the all-position description to their steer tire line. This means they acknowledge these tires can be operated in drive positions, so I'm sure they have the data to prove they work just as well as their traction counterparts. With all of the emphasis on fuel economy, I started to think that Bill's approach would result in the minimum rolling resistance, which could potentially save fleets millions in fuel costs. But then I remembered that drivers haven't changed in the last couple of decades, and most would still refuse to drive the truck if they saw steer tires on the drive axles, especially in winter. They've been conditioned to think they need traction tires and don't care that Bill never wrecked, never got stuck, or never missed a delivery.
Kevin Rohlwing can be reached at [email protected]