A new National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report says requiring tiremakers to electronically identify tires is feasible, but the main technologies to achieve it – Radio Frequency Identification tags or two-dimensional bar-codes – come with plusses and minuses that would need sorting out to achieve a standard format across manufacturers.
The report was mandated by the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, and requested by the Tire Industry Association, which represents tire retailers. In this preliminary study, NHTSA reviewed past research, journal publications, press releases, applicable standards, and government regulations, and met with safety advocates, including Safety Research & Strategies, electronic identification technology companies, tiremakers, tire techs and tire sellers. The agency also conducted its own time/task study to determine how long it takes for someone to hand-record the four TINs on tires mounted on a vehicle.
The report’s conclusions are less startling than a long overdue catch-up on yesterday’s news. Tire manufacturers have been developing RFID technology in tires since 1994. The first tire and wheel tracking standard – B-11 – which included a protocol for RFID, and promulgated by the Automotive Industry Action Group – was unveiled in 2002. In 2006, Michelin was embedding RFID tags into truck tires; Goodyear put them in NASCAR race tires.
The idea of using electronic tire identification to improve the tire registration and recall system is, similarly, an old idea. In 2007, SRS, long an advocate for tire registration reform, published a white paper titled “Tire Recalls and Tire Safety: The RFID Solution,” pointing out that the tire registration and recall system was broken because it continued to depend on a 50-year-old pencil-and-paper system. The Tire Identification Number (TIN) – the alphanumeric linchpin of the system, used to determine tire age and tire recall population – was not well understood by the average consumer and often inaccessible, if mounted on the inner sidewall. And despite the technological advances, there was still no way to identify and track individual tires once they left the manufacturer.
As part of the study, NHTSA demonstrated to its own satisfaction something SRS has been arguing for years – hand-recording Tire Identification Number takes too long to be practical in the fast-paced retail and service environment. NHTSA testers, recording TINS on 33 vehicles, took anywhere from nearly three minutes to nearly 6 minutes to write down the TINs. The most time was spent on vehicles in which the full TINs (with the date codes) were mounted inwards on all four tires.
For the study’s purposes, electronic tire identification was defined as an electronically-readable marking or tag within or on the sidewall of a tire that could be captured and transmitted electronically with a hand-held scanning tool. NHTSA found that RFID and 2D barcode technologies – either separately or used in concert – appear to be suitable for implementation and for a standard data format. But each has advantages and disadvantages.
RFID tags only require the scanner to be within two feet of the tag to be read, so they are readable regardless of which sidewall is facing outward. But current RFID tags don’t have enough memory to store the TIN, so higher-cost tags with additional memory would be necessary. In 2013, Korean tire maker Kumho began including RFID tags in its tires and currently installs them in passenger and light truck tires made at all of its plants except for those made in China, claiming it as an inventory management tool. In 2017, Michelin announced that it would be adding RFID tags to all its commercial truck tires and retreads. A June 2018 opinion piece in Rubber and Plastics News, authored by Jos Uijlenbroek, a founder of Firm RFID Solutions, claimed that the industry was “rapidly adopting” RFID “in a growing number of tire industry processes.”
According to the report, 2D barcodes are “two-dimensional optical arrays that represent data using many small, contrasting geometric shapes, such as squares and circles,” used to identify and track items. 2D barcodes had only a 1-foot range and required a clear line-of-sight to be read, but they have greater capacity to present the TIN. They also have a higher up-front machine cost, but are cheaper per-tire than RFID tags.
Some tiremakers currently etch 2D barcodes into tire sidewalls post-manufacturing, the report said. Officials from 4Jet, a German-based tire laser engraving technology company who met with NHTSA researchers, characterized laser etching as “a mature, well established, and widely used process in the tire industry,” used for serial numbers and TIN date codes. 4Jet reported, for example, that last year, some European vehicle manufacturers were requiring the Data Matrix Codes on both sidewalls of OE tires, and that two major tire manufacturers had “run successful pilot projects and are planning to implement QR codes for use in their truck tires starting in 2018.”
NHTSA’s conclusions echo those of the National Transportation Safety Board, which identified electronic tire identification as a way to increase tire registration. Its 2015 Special Investigation Report noted that the process can break down at multiple points. For example, registration forms are routed from the manufacturer to wholesalers and importers that might not pass them along to tire retailers. The time it takes to hand-record paper forms can be a strain on large-volume tire dealers. Digital registration, it concluded was quick, easy and would increase the accuracy of the TIN records and tire registration itself:
Scanning technologies that allow dealers to electronically read barcodes or radio- frequency identification (RFID) tags permanently affixed on a tire offer an alternative that could expedite the registration process. Using this technology, a tire’s TIN could be quickly scanned, recorded, and electronically uploaded to a computerized registration system. Such a system would reduce the time needed for a dealer to register a tire, thereby increasing the probability that tire registration would take place. Use of scanning technologies could also reduce transcription errors. Although resources would be required to create an industry standard for software that takes full advantage of this technology, such an innovation would also simplify the tracking, storage, and distribution of tires, resulting in significant cost savings for both manufacturers and dealers.
Over the years, the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association (USTMA) and the Tire Industry Association (TIA) have competed for the title of “Tire Organization Most Indifferent to Tire Registration and Recalls.” The TIA was the winner for decades, having, in the early 1980s, persuaded Congress to remove tire dealers from the tire recall system – the regulations only required dealers to hand their customers a registration card to be filled out and returned to the manufacturer. Then, the USTMA surged ahead with some legislative jujitsu by lobbying for a FAST Act provision that compelled the agency to write regulations requiring independent dealers to maintain customer tire purchase information and electronically transmit those records to tire manufacturers.
But at last year’s Clemson Tire Conference, an annual industry confab, the old rivals in apathy stood together declaring their allegiance to one another, to the idea that the tire registration system could stand some improving, and to the recognition that any solution would involve the introduction of modern technology. There was no discussion of how this would be achieved.
So, when – and if – the process gets down to the nitty-gritty of costs and implementation, we’ll see how committed the players really are.