Le Divorce?

For decades, the tire makers and the tire sellers have been a couple with an uneasy relationship – mainly because more than the Rubber Manufacturers Association, which represents the former,  loves the people who buy and sell their products, it hates change. And the RMA has ably defended its member companies against all kinds of proposals making it easier for consumers to read the Tire Identification Number for recalls or to automate the process of identifying tires as they move through the distribution chain, all in the name of never altering one thing about the way they do business. And, like a stay-at-home wife with three kids under the age of six who chooses to believe that her husband is always working late, the Tire Industry Association, which represents dealers, has been willing to go along for the sake of family harmony.

But the two might be headed to Family Court after all, over a couple of RMA-backed pieces of legislation designed to return tire registration duties to the independent retailers. One is an amendment to the next DOT authorization bill, the Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency, and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America Act” or “GROW AMERICA Act.” The second is the Tire Efficiency, Safety and Registration Act, which – along with compelling NHTSA to create a tire recall database and minimum performance standards for fuel efficiency and wet traction – would contain a similar mandatory tire registration.

“We’re disappointed,” says TIA Executive Vice President Roy Littlefield. “Everyone in industry should work hard to come together to find a solution. What’s happening here is just wrong.”

Sec. 4112, subsection B of the GROW AMERICA Act empowers the Secretary of Transportation to consider a rulemaking to require independent tire dealers to electronically capture the TIN and the name and address of tire purchasers, and transmit those records to the manufacturer of the tire or a third-party entity at no cost to the dealers. Tire dealers who decline could be fined $100 per tire per location for a maximum of $10,000. Bonus penalty: an enforcement scheme for tire dealers who use customer information illegally.

Well, that was apparently enough for the TIA to start shouting about lipstick on collars. After all, the dealers haven’t had to register a tire since 1983, when their lobbyists persuaded Congress to specifically exempt them from the tire recall system. At the time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was laboring mightily to engage tire manufacturers and sellers in the system of identifying recalled tires and their owners, against strong and uniform resistance. According to the Federal Register Notice announcing that independent dealers would no longer participate, virtually all new tires and up to 90 percent of replacement tires sold by manufacturer affiliated retail outlets were registered. A House Committee on Energy and Commerce found that independent tire dealers only registered about 20 percent of replacement tires. And so: “In an effort to improve the registration rate for tires sold by independent dealers” Congress decided to bar the Secretary of Transportation from requiring them to do nothing more but hand the task over to the consumer to fill it out and send it off to the manufacturer – or not. This was a completely successful experiment – now, the tire registration rate is (drum roll, please!) still 20 percent!

The proposal had its roots in a National Transportation Safety Board two-day conference on tire safety. Symposium chair Earl Weener, an NTSB member since 2010 and an aviation safety expert, was completely unimpressed with the Rubber Manufacturers Association argument that it would be too difficult to build tires that can be scanned for the TIN.  “That’s interesting,” he said, “because I think an awful lot of people in this audience have an iPhone. That iPhone can read QR codes, can read barcodes, can read UBS codes. But somehow that is too much technology for the tire manufacturers and for the tire distribution process. You know, you go to the airport and about every third person checks in with their iPhone, with a barcode on them. So it seems to me that maybe some imagination is required.”

The RMA thought it would be way cooler to stick with a 42-year-old system, as long as someone else was doing the work and assuming the liability. Sticking the TIA and its dealer members with the onerous task of manually translating the 11 alpha-numeric TINs off each tire into a computer in a service environment also introduces a significant human error problem. At the NTSB conference, the TIA’s Kevin Rohlwing protested that it was already too much to stock registration cards from several manufacturers—instead, retailers should just have to give the customer the TIN and tell them what website they can use to register the vehicles. They also took their concerns directly to NHTSA, and pitched the idea of automation. NHTSA was reportedly sympathetic, but maintained that in order for tire registration to work, the consumer must come out of the equation.

Why isn’t anyone talking about bringing the companies that produce the product into the equation? Instead of squabbling over who will register tires, why not put some nifty old technology to use? Nothing will be resolved until manufacturers build in machine-readability of the TIN.  Technology like radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips can store the tire’s TIN which includes the age and recall lookup capability allowing dealers to easily automate registration. (See SRS’s 2007 white paper on tire recalls and RFID solution)

Right now, the entire Grow America Act has been stalled. With short-term transportation funding running out on July 31, our Republican-led Congress, which cannot agree that the sun rises in the East, has not been able to figure out anything more than a patch on the 2005 transportation bill. But the RMA, unwilling to wait, had presidential aspirant Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), along with Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss) introduce the stand-alone tire registration bill last week, which is apparently moving smartly through the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

The TIA is now interested in discussing real improvements to the system, and supports using scan technology to read DOT codes. Will it be able to stage a reconciliation before the D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final?