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May 27, 2014

Green car owners overlook low rolling resistance tires

Consumers focus on longevity and price

by Ann Neal

Doug Eichten is tire and service advisor at Schierl Tire & Service Center in Marshfield, Wis., where fuel-efficient tires account for less than 2% of sales.
Doug Eichten is tire and service advisor at Schierl Tire & Service Center in Marshfield, Wis., where

The U.S. Department of Energy says up to 15% of fuel consumed by a car is used to overcome a passenger tire’s resistance to the road. Studies by Green Seal Inc., a nonprofit environmental standard development and certification organization, show low rolling resistance tires can reduce fuel consumption by 1.5% to 4.5%. Yet consumers shopping for replacement tires tend to focus on longevity and price rather than fuel efficiency.

“Rolling resistance is a non-factor on choosing tires,” says Doug Eichten, tire and service advisor at Schierl Tire & Service Center in Marshfield, Wis. “Guests seem to be hesitant to buy into the rolling resistance or the fuel economy.

“When I talk with a guest about lower rolling resistance and fuel economy, it seems to just go past them. Fuel-efficient tires account for less than 2% of our sales, and that is overstated because the sport utility fuel-efficient tire, the Goodyear Assurance CS Fuel Max, is a better value than the regular tire in the sizes they are sold in.”

Ironically, Prius owners seem to care the least. Eichten estimates less than 1% of his Prius customers are concerned with fuel economy when buying replacement tires. “Most of them are more concerned with how many miles they are going to last.”

Schierl Inc. does business as Schierl Tire & Service Center in six Wisconsin cities. Eichten says the team leaders at all six of the company’s retail locations are in agreement: Few customers want low rolling resistance tires despite their fuel-saving advantages.

Consumers are not asking for fuel-efficient tires in Montana, either. “We see very little customer demand for low rolling resistance tires,” says Jared McDermott, general manager of L.P. Anderson Tire Co. Inc., which does business as L.P. Anderson Tire Factory in Billings.

“Consumers in general seem to have little knowledge about them, and those who have heard of them are typically misinformed.

“They expect a green tire to have a significant impact on fuel economy, and are generally disappointed to hear that the improvements are measured in tenths, not two or three miles per gallon.”

Owners of green vehicles are the exception, he says. “The only demand we see typically comes from customers driving hybrids, and they are more educated about these things than an average customer.

“In general, lower rolling resistance does nothing to help us sell tires in the passenger car and light truck segment.”

MTD survey: eco tires

Eichten’s and McDermott’s assessments echo the findings of the 2014 Eco Tire Survey conducted by Modern Tire Dealer in March 2014. For nearly 60% of the respondents, eco tires make up 5% or less of their replacement tire sales.

In contrast, 3% said eco tires make up more than 30% of their tire sales.

When asked what percentage of their retail customers ask for eco tires, 80% of the respondents answered 5% or less of them do. Not surprisingly, a high percentage of them own hybrids, electric vehicles and sedans.

Close to 40% of the independent tire dealers surveyed said their customers are willing to pay a higher price for eco tires. However, two thirds of those customers aren’t willing to spend more than a 10% premium.

Even customers replacing eco tires often choose standard tires. When asked what percent of customers who come in with eco tires on their vehicles replace them with eco tires, 44% of dealers answered “5% or less of the time.” Another 14% said it happens 6% to 10% of the time. Only 16% of respondents said their customers replace eco tires with eco tires a majority of the time.

Almost two-thirds of dealers said overall demand for eco tires has remained unchanged over the last two years. When asked to predict future demand, 54% said it will remain unchanged over the next two years, while 34% said there will be more demand.

Big and green

Tire manufacturers expect demand for replacement eco tires to grow, especially in the larger vehicle segments.

“OEMs are continuing to demand more fuel-efficient tires for CUVs, SUVs and trucks in order to meet CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards,” says Larry Eckart, OE product expert for Michelin North America Inc. “There isn’t quite as much demand in that category in the replacement market for fuel-efficient tires, but it is growing.”

Henry Kopacz, public relations and social media manager for Hankook Tire America Corp., says North American consumers are taking more interest in fuel-efficient tires. “But consumers in general still place their main focus on traction and tread wear when it comes to selecting replacement tires, whether that’s in the PCR, LTR or winter categories.”

Continental Tire the Americas LLC expects fuel efficiency to become a bigger part of consumers’ buying decisions. “Unfortunately, many consumers still do not recognize the potential benefits of fuel-efficient tires, but through continued education this should improve,” says Sam Dollyhigh, PLT product planning manager.

Anant Gandhi, product manager for Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations LLC, says the company demonstrates its commitment to consumers and the environment through two key consumer tire products in its portfolio: the Bridgestone Ecopia EP422 for passenger cars and minivans, and the Bridgestone Dueler H/L 422 Ecopia products for CUVs, SUVs and light trucks.

“The performance targets for these products place strong emphasis on rolling resistance without compromising any other performance metrics,” he adds.

Bridgestone also created the Eco-Product designation for tires that meet environmentally conscious criteria in construction and have improved rolling resistance.

Jim Davis, manager of public relations at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., said the company considers fuel efficiency or low rolling resistance to be a quality of some tires, rather than a product segment. Continental does not treat fuel-efficient tires as a separate segment either, according to Dollyhigh.

“Instead, we ensure that fuel efficiency is one of our design priorities.  For example, our latest product in the touring segment, the TrueContact, was designed with a strong focus on fuel efficiency in addition to other performance characteristics which we feel are important such as wet braking and tread life.”

Robert Hepp, vice president strategic planning for Nokian Tyres Inc., says the company has concentrated on lowering the rolling resistance of all its tires for many years. The high price of gasoline in Finland, where Nokian is based, has helped make fuel efficiency a performance target for every tire. Gas is currently more than $7.50 a gallon in Finland, according to Hepp.

“Fuel efficiency is always in every tire we are developing. Nokian won’t come out with a specific fuel-efficient tire; all tires are fuel efficient.”

Segment specific

MTD asked eco tire manufacturers for an update on fuel efficiency, products and technology in the winter, SUV, UHP and light truck segments. Here is what they had to say.

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