Labelling and truck tyres – ‘Trickery’ won’t be forgiven

No, Continental’s Herbert Mensching and Dr. Frank Walloch cannot conceive that a tyre maker could solely focus its development on label-related areas just to achieve sales through high ratings. The two men, respectively managing director sales and marketing at Continental’s Commercial Vehicle Tires unit and director of product development for commercial vehicle tyres in the EMEA region, believe a one-sided preference for specific development priorities will evaporate after around nine months at the very latest, as professional truck tyre users are competent at evaluating these products. Instead of placing a focus on criteria such as wet braking or rolling resistance, what is of key importance for commercial vehicle tyres, most likely more than in the passenger car tyre segment, is balanced product development in which other criteria – such as mileage and retreadability – will rank high on the list of priorities.

It is already known that trimming away one or two millimetres of tread depth can marginally improve rolling resistance. But this measure can’t be considered trickery as it can be easily measured and is also documented in a tyre’s technical information. If anyone can implement this without negatively impacting upon other performance parameters – particularly mileage in this instance – then they have demonstrated technical progress and should be acknowledged for this. All players, Continental included, strive to achieve such progress.

Continental’s head of truck tyre development says the tyre maker’s aim is to think from a customer point of view and derive its development priorities from this. And therefore, for example, a tyre intended for use of construction sites will pay scant attention to the three label criteria and none at all for road noise, but will instead have an emphasis on other criteria, such as durability.

Nevertheless, Mensching wishes there to be no misunderstanding; he states that the three chosen label values, rolling resistance, wet braking and external noise (see textbox) are absolutely welcomed by Continental and receive the tyre maker’s full support, however he also knows the expectations of truck tyre customers are much broader than those of passenger car tyre buyers. Widely differing sets of requirements exist between long distance and regional traffic, motorway, B-roads and construction site usage. For the demands of original equipment fitment the label grades are at any rate too crude, as achieving concrete results are what counts in that sector, rather than a “B” or a “C”. The difference between a “good B” and a “barely B” can be larger than that between a “just scraped into A” and a “good B”, and therefore vehicle manufacturers and OE customers are not guided or bedazzled by such ratings. Walloch shares that back when the label criteria was first released, Continental closely examined and analysed the details, however then decided that no major changes needed to be made to its development procedure.

Mensching reiterates that efforts are made at Continental to think from a customer perspective and to act and orient the company to their needs, yet one external influence needs to be kept in mind: influence coming from the lawmakers. Thus the label that comes into effect in November already includes EU directive 2001/43/EG and regulation 661/2009 regarding limits for noise levels from 2012 and 2016. And, looking ahead to the future, Dr. Walloch suggests it would be quite imaginable that new rules coming from the legislators in the coming years, for example on the environment or resource conservation (“what happens to a tyre at the end of its life?”) will need to be adhered to – regardless of the tyre label.

There is no development program at Continental that is steered by the motto “AA come hell or high water,” comments Walloch in the knowledge that no leap in technology will emerge simply from the creation of label grades. At most, labelling has had a very slight influence in less than five instances, cases where specific tyre sizes would have missed a better label classification by the narrowest of margins and it made sense to give the product a nudge over the hurdle without compromising on other qualities. “We are in a market segment where dishonesty towards a customer regarding products would inevitably be avenged,” reflects Mensching, who admits frankly that in some individual cases it may eventuate that a second-brand product receives a better rating than the premium Continental brand in the same size and for the same application. The company’s public relations department must then explain the reasons behind this to the customer, even though this is no pleasant task.

Both men interviewed by Tyres & Accessories agree that the new tyre label represents an opportunity rather than a risk for the truck tyre segment. People shouldn’t see a sinister side to the label where none actually exists, but Mensching and Walloch do not deny that a certain apprehension remains about the effect labelling will have on consumers. The label criteria were primarily ‘tailored’ for passenger car tyres; cars generally have the same tyre fitment on all four wheels, whereas trucks employ different types of tyre on steering, drive and trailer axles. The realisation that no sum total can be calculated from the label grades for various axle positions will be a good starting point for further discussion on this subject.

The effort involved in labelling all types of car, light commercial vehicle and truck tyres was enormous for both Continental and all other manufacturers. The label will, even for truck tyres, develop into a standard and something considered very normal. But this is still a long way away, and progress towards this goal will be strongly influenced by how successful the manufacturers’ communication to retailers is, and also to consumers. It is possible for a manufacturer to intensify its development focus in favour of drive axle noise, for example, but premium manufacturers are particularly compelled to strive for a balance between all performance criteria and to aim for the highest levels in each of these.

“You’ll only sell a unilaterally-optimised tyre once,” says Herbert Mensching, who believes the other premium manufacturers also hold this opinion and develop their tyres accordingly. What’s more, he can’t entertain the idea that other, more ‘exotic’ players in the business would choose to operate differently, as whoever does so would harm his own future within the commercial vehicle tyre business. With his long-standing experience in this particular market segment he is aware that truck tyre customers have a “very long memory.” For professional customers, it is not just a tyre’s mileage or its rolling resistance that counts, and not just its price or a label rating either. All these important individual values influence total costs for fleet operators, and what counts at the end of the day for customers is cost per mile for long-distance applications and hourly operating costs for construction or quarry service.

 

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