In passing the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, the federal government acted to drastically improve the average fuel economy of new vehicles sold in the United States. But increased CAFE standards weren’t the only aspect in the legislation intended to get Americans driving more efficiently.
One little-known provision of the bill was targeted at raising consumer awareness of low rolling resistance tires, which can give drivers as much as a 10 percent improvement in fuel efficiency over competing models. The National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration was directed to devise a mandatory labeling system for all new replacement tires sold in the U.S., giving consumers a chance to do side-by-side comparisons of government-backed fuel efficiency, safety, and durability ratings.
That labeling and ratings system was scheduled to be implemented within 24 months, but has been delayed thanks in part to pressure from the tire industry, which prefers a “point-of-sale customer educational program revolving around government-mandated rolling resistance ratings.”
The industry’s proposal would:
- Force tire sellers to display a simplified sticker design at the point of sale rather than mandating a tag be placed on each tire.
- Replace the color-coded , 1-100 number rating with a five-star system, representing performance relative to competing models designed for each class of vehicle, rather than a baseline score.
- Obfuscate the meanings of the numbers by renaming the safety rating the “wet traction rating,” and the durability rating the “tread wear rating.”
Follow the Money
The Tire Industry Association (TIA) hired two seasoned Washington power players to influence the regulatory process: former House speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, and former Democratic representative Al Wynn of Maryland. In an April interview with MotorAge, TIA vice president Roy Littlefield said the group was “totally committed to [the] effort,” refusing to comment on its total spending but adding, “former Congressmen don’t come cheap.”
Behind the tire industry’s dubious assertion that attaching the labels would, as Littlefield told MotorAge, place a “tremendous burden on manufacturers,” is the reality that such a system might very well force tire companies to drastically overhaul their product lineups and improve the base quality of the tires they sell.
The industry isn’t lying when it says the proposed labels would be a burden—but not due to the cost of the plastic tags manufacturers would be forced to fix to each tire.
The broader effect of such a system would be that consumers would likely demand better quality tires at lower price points, creating unwanted strife for an industry that is only now beginning to recover from recent losses brought on by rising costs for raw materials.
Few customers are willing to sacrifice safety, durability, or fuel efficiency when they buy new tires, so if information is presented to them in such a way that makes the trade-offs associated with each model clear, the result would likely create a further crush on high-quality rubbers—something that hasn’t escaped the notice of rubber industry either.
Today, one of the leading suppliers of rubber to the tire industry, the LANXESS Corporation, issued a press release urging NHTSA to move forward with the labeling system as soon as possible. LANXESS has also spent at least $30,000 lobbying the House of Representatives and Senate on the issue over the past few months.
That spending was likely aimed at countering the efforts of the TIA and its member companies, who began to pour money into their congressional lobbying efforts early this year, citing a desire to “monitor” the regulatory process as it unfolds.
The TIA alone has spent $50,000 lobbying the issue, and though issue-specific spending information isn’t available for the sector’s member companies, Goodyear and Bridgestone’s political action committees each spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on campaign contributions—with the majority of the money going to Democrats.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Whether that money has influenced the delay of a new labeling standard is debatable, but in blocking the measure this year until further consumer testing could be performed, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) Administrator Cass Sunstein wrote that NHTSA should “aim to measure consumers’ understanding of the label, and their likely behavior given that understanding” before finalizing its plan, setting the process back at least another six months.
The reasoning provided by Sunstein somewhat resembles the rationale offered by TIA for its alternative customer education-based proposal, though it remains unclear whether OIRA has come to see things the industry’s way or is simply making a good-faith effort to ensure the effectiveness of the labels. (Records do indicate that in January, representatives from several tire companies met with White House OIRA officials to advocate for their proposal.)
Meanwhile, the NHTSA was scheduled to complete its retooled study of the labels’ effectiveness on September 30 of this year, though the results haven’t yet been made public.
The NHSTA will review the new information and use it to reformulate the labeling system—if it so chooses. If the agency fails to devise a new rule that is satisfactory to OIRA, that office might again choose to send the rule back for further study.
The Path of Least Resistance
Even if the tire industry is unsuccessful in steering the implementation of NHTSA’s consumer information efforts, the delays have given it more time to prepare for changes that in the words of one industry-funded study, would “result in [possible] shifts in consumer demand for replacement tires.”
For consumers, the takeaway from all of this legislative sausage-making should be the importance of gathering and comparing safety, durability and efficiency information before making any tire purchase—whether or not the government makes that process as easy showing up at the store and looking at a standardized label. (Consumer Reports is a good place to start for safety, durability and rolling resistance information, but several other groups including Green Seal also rate tires for efficiency.)
Drivers can save big money on gas and lower the emissions from their cars and trucks simply by buying the right tires and keeping them properly rotated and inflated. Those measures are lot less expensive than buying a new hybrid or electric car, and in some cases can provide equally impressive fuel economy improvements.