WASHINGTON -- Disaster is the parent of invention and other business offspring, including marketing, sales and profits. The proof is in the number of new products, especially tire-inflation monitoring devices, rising out of the current international concern over millions of deadly defective Firestone AT/ATX/Wilderness truck tires.
Numerous auto industry suppliers are gearing up to offer automakers the latest inflation monitoring technology, designed to alert drivers about tires that are under-inflated, or filled with too much air.
Under-inflation can lead to tread separation, especially when driving at high speeds with heavy loads in hot weather.
Over-inflation can cause vehicle instability, or tire blowouts.
Under-inflation is a key suspect in the Firestone recall, as well as in a similar action being taken by Continental General Tire, the U.S. subsidiary of Germany's Continenal AG.
The recalls have prompted consumer advocates to renew their longstanding call for tire-inflation monitoring devices, which they say are necessary in an era when service stations serve only gasoline and motorists seldom bother to check the rubber that meets the road.
This time, Congress appears to be listening and is taking steps that could make the inflation monitoring devices standard equipment in most new cars and trucks sold in the United States.
But, unlike auto industry-federal regulatory imbroglios of the past, the current mess amounts to a petri dish of business opportunities for aggressively innovative companies such as the Fleet Specialties Division of FTC Inc., a privately held developer of electronic monitoring devices based in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Little known outside the auto industry, Fleet Specialties began developing and marketing inflation monitoring devices for the trucking industry 10 years ago.
The same company in 1985 also developed back-up warning radar systems to warn drivers about rear obstacles. Those rear-alert devices have since moved from big trucks to minivans such as the Ford Windstar and luxury cars such as Cadillac and BMW models. In a few years, they could become common on a wide variety of vehicles, assuming consumer acceptance.
Now, in the wake of the current tire controversies, Fleet Specialties has come up with a new offering that conceivably could put tire-inflation monitoring devices in most passenger vehicles sold worldwide.
The company calls the product The New Tire Sentry to distinguish it from the original Tire Sentry installed on 18-wheel trucks.
The New Tire Sentry is wireless. It uses electronic tire valve caps, which include pressure sensors and microtransmitters.
The caps continuously monitor the pressure in each tire, sending warning signals to the motorist, via a two-inch instrument panel display, whenever something is amiss.
The wheel sensors are pre-set for each tire, and coded for each tire's location. That way, the sensors give specific information about which tire is losing air, or packed with too much.
This is important from the standpoints of safety and fuel efficiency, according to experts at the Department of Transportation.
Improper inflation ruins tires and causes accidents. It also wastes fuel and drains dollars from consumers' pockets.
According to DOT estimates, U.S. drivers could save 4.2 million gallons of fuel per day simply by keeping their tires properly inflated.
Fleet Specialties, at this point, is not putting a price on The New Tire Sentry, which the company says is "nearing production." But industry betting is that the company will try to gain "first user" advantage by beating everyone to market with a product and a price that will find widespread acceptance.
We'll keep an eye out for future developments in this arena.
Meanwhile, regarding tires, there are some other things to consider. The people at www.thecarconnection.com have come up with a wonderfully readable "Tire Primer," which I hereby recommend to your attention. Here are some snippets:
-- Check tire pressure using an air gauge at least once a month. Always check tire pressure before and during long drives. Do not settle for a visual check. Modern radial tires could be under-inflated and still look full.
-- The correct tire pressure, expressed in "pounds per square inch" or "psi," usually is posted on a sticker in the jamb of the driver's side door. It might also be found on the inside flap of the gas cover, or on a label inside the glove compartment door.
-- Tires should be rotated every 6,500 to 10,000 miles. Check the owner's manual for the specific rotation schedule affecting your vehicle.
-- Take wheel misalignments seriously, usually indicated by the steering wheel pulling left or right, or by wheel shimmy. Tires are brutalized under such conditions, and could rebel by shredding tread, or blowing out.
Tire Recall Summary:
Firestone is recalling 7.9 million tires, including 1.4 million left out of its Aug. 9 take-back announcement, in the United States. Globally, the company is calling back 14 million.
Continental is recalling 140,000 original equipment ContiTrac AS tires (P245/75R16) and another 20,000 replacement tires of that designation.
There are two, large commonalities in both recalls. The first is that the tires in question are subject to tread separation, especially in high-speed, high-heat situations when they are under-inflated and overloaded.
The second, which is extremely problematical for Ford Motor Co., is that the vast majority of those tires are losing their treads, or showing excessive signs of tread wear, on Ford sport-utility models.
Defective Firestones are flipping Ford Explorers, causing rollover crashes that have killed dozens of people in the United States and elsewhere, according to U.S. and foreign auto-safety officials.
Defective Continentals are creating crash dangers for an estimated 38,000 Lincoln Navigator sport-utility models (1998-1999) manufactured by Ford, according to Continental and Ford officials.
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