Tyre claims get proponents all hot and bothered

RACV sounds alarm over runflat tyres as BMW, Bridgestone hiss at the latest findings

By NEIL McDONALD 9 November 2005

AN RACV investigation has suggested Australian car buyers are being seduced into complacency with the burgeoning growth of runflat tyre technology.

However, in a war of words, one of the leading proponents of the technology, BMW Group Australia, has disputed the motoring organisation’s findings.

Tyre manufacturer Bridgestone, one of the country’s largest suppliers of runflats, has also voiced concern.

The controversial tyres, which have a stiff sidewall construction designed to support the vehicle’s weight without air pressure in the tyre, were developed at the behest of vehicle manufacturers intent on maximising space in their vehicles.

They enable a vehicle to be designed without a spare wheel onboard, and in the event of a puncture allow the car to be driven with a completely flat tyre for distances up to 150km at a reduced speed of around 80km/h. Up to 1000km can apparently be clocked up when there is low tyre pressure.

Other manufacturers use tyre sealants or small, temporary-use spare wheels to increase the available space in their vehicles.

The RACV and other organisations have been critical of the increasing number of new cars sold without a full-size spare wheel and, in a report published in the latest RoyalAuto magazine, the Victorian motoring association suggests that runflat tyres could greatly inconvenience drivers and in some situations could leave them stranded.

It found few tyre outlets throughout Australia actually stocked, or were capable of replacing or repairing, a runflat tyre.

In response, BMW Group Australia’s corporate communications manager, Alexander Corne, said he was concerned with the some of the report’s findings.

"They’ve got it wrong," he said. Runflat technology delivered convenience and safety to motorists "without the inconvenience of being stuck by the side of the road", he said. Issues of safety and security were paramount, too, particularly at night, he said.

A Bridgestone spokesman told GoAuto earlier this week that some aspects of the RACV report were wrong, however the company failed to clarify its concerns before this report was published.

Bridgestone has 59 accredited runflat tyre centres nationally, mostly in metropolitan areas. It has just two such centres in Western Australia.

The RACV believes there is some technical merit in the tyres but claims they impose a significant inconvenience risk in Australian conditions, as well as a heavy cost burden.

The RACV’s vehicles program leader in its public policy department, Ernest Latera, said consumers needed to be aware of the issues regarding runflats and other forms of space-saving tyres.

"Very few people actually think about the implications of runflats," he said. "And the implications are the convenience of the backup infrastructure."

The infrastructure for runflat replacements "does not really exist in this country", he said. Mr Latera also said that many tyre suppliers were reluctant to carry "a $600 or $700 tyre in stock on the off chance that somebody’s going to get a puncture".

"In some respects I think the issue with space-savers is worse, because you’re being asked to put on a tyre which is totally inappropriate to drive on. But in this case it is total inconvenience."

According to the RACV, Bridgestone has advised its dealers that they must be authorised to fit the tyres, which means having specialised equipment worth up to $10,000 and proper training for service personnel, an expense few smaller tyre retailers are willing to undertake.

Bridgestone has also told its dealers not to repair runflats even if they suffer something as simple as a nail through the tread, which means an expensive replacement tyre.

The RACV claims that other service centres have been instructed to inspect the tyres first and repair them only if the damage was not excessive.

Runflats are also up to 30 per cent more expensive than conventional tyres, it says. One importer, Mercedes-Benz, has listed Australia as a "poor roads" country, which means higher-profile tyres and a full-size spare is fitted to its vehicles "wherever possible".

The majority of vehicles currently fitted with runflats in Australia are, interestingly, from the BMW stable or one of its subsidiaries, including Rolls-Royce and Mini.

In Australia, BMW uses runflats as original equipment on its 1 Series, 3 Series sedan, 6 Series and Z4 models as well as some 5 Series models. Other car-makers and importers are known to be looking at introducing the technology as it becomes more widely available and replacement costs become cheaper.

Australian-built cars such as the Ford Falcon, Holden Commodore, Mitsubishi 380 and Toyota Camry retain full-size spares, but all manufacturers are known to be investigating how to get weight out of their vehicles.

A full-size spare can add as much as 15kg to a vehicle’s weight and take up valuable boot space.

Apart from Bridgestone, which has been supplying this type of tyre to car-makers since 1999, runflat manufacturers include Dunlop, Goodyear and Pirelli.

French tyre-maker Michelin adopts a slightly different system for its runflat tyres, called PAX, which run on an internal support designed to maintain the tyre’s road contact.

Mr Latera admitted the technology was groundbreaking, but said consumers needed to be aware of the issues.

BMW’s own research in the United Kingdom earlier this year showed that 12,327 BMW drivers in 2003 and 2004 – 100 drivers a week – would have been able to continue their journey on runflats rather than call for roadside assistance.

The most recent RACV data on callouts relating to flat tyres is from 2003, when in metropolitan Melbourne it received 140 callouts a day.