Run-Flat Tires: Running On Empty

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Run-flat tires make sense, but they’re not for everyone. PHOTO Bridgestone

Before you recommend zero-pressure tires—also known as run-flats—to your customers, make sure they know the pros and cons.

At first glance, run-flat tires would seem to be the logical choice for all vehicles and all drivers. After all, who wouldn’t want a tire that can run on zero air pressure, thus allowing the driver to maintain control of the vehicle after a blowout?

In addition, driving on run-flats means the driver doesn’t have to immediately pull over to the side of the road or the highway to change a flat tire. Instead, he can continue driving until he finds a safe location, or he can opt to drive directly to a tire retailer to buy a replacement tire, or get the run-flat fixed.

In the real world, however, run-flats haven’t been embraced by the vast majority of vehicle owners. According to Robert Saul, Director of Consumer Product Strategy, Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, U.S. and Canada run-flats make up less than 5% of the market.

“Some would consider it a niche market,” he tells Autosphere Mag. “However, millions of vehicles come equipped with run-flat tires in place of spare tires as this allows for a reduction in overall weight and the ability to optimize limited space in the vehicle while still providing extended mobility and convenience.”

Indeed, run-flats are OE on a range of vehicles from Audi, BMW, GM, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, and other high-end brands. By opting for run-flats, these manufacturers aim to reduce the overall weight of their vehicles (albeit slightly), and with the spare tire and jack went, they can offer more room for cargo or other must-haves. The added safety is also a selling point.

Evolution of the run-flat

Run-flat tires have changed significantly since they were first introduced in the 1990s. “The progression of run-flat technology results in much-improved ride characteristics with fewer trade-offs in weight and rolling resistance performance versus previous iterations,” explains Ernest Bedia, President of Pirelli Canada. “This is done through a combination of improved run-flat insert material and optimization of the size and shape.”

Bridgestone’s Robert Saul admits that run-flats weren’t as appealing in the early days. “Early generation run-flat tires were often criticized for their firm, uncomfortable ride, limited availability, and premium price tag,” he says.

Today, consumers still pay a premium for run-flats, but the ride is more agreeable. “The sidewalls are not as stiff,” explains Tom Carter, Product Marketing, Technical Communications Director, Michelin. “And that’s allowing us to make a tire that gives a decent range without compromising the comfort and the rolling resistance too much.”

Even though the comfort level has improved over the years, Jim Knowles, Original Equipment Product Category Manager, Michelin says he would still advise tire retailers to recommend run-flats only to those consumers who drive vehicles that were originally equipped with them.

“If it didn’t come with run-flats, I don’t know that I’d be in a hurry to recommend run-flats,” he says, “because [the vehicle] probably wasn’t optimized suspension-wise for that extra reinforcement stiffness in the tire.”

In other words, vehicles that roll off the assembly line with run-flats have been engineered to run on those stiffer sidewalls. Their suspension systems have been tuned with that extra stiffness already taken into account so as not to compromise drive quality and comfort.

In fact, according to Pirelli’s Ernest Bedia, stiffer sidewalls can actually improve handling and performance. “In some instances,” he adds, “the stiffness of run-flat tires can further enhance the sportive nature of a vehicle it’s developed for.”

Replacement tires

Bridgestone’s Robert Saul believes that today’s advanced run-flat technology is suitable for a wide range of vehicles, whether they rolled off the assembly line with run-flats or not. The added safety is well worth it.

“Bridgestone manufactures run-flat tires globally for both the original equipment and replacement channels,” he says. “In the replacement channel, we offer our innovative Bridgestone DriveGuard line of touring tires for vehicles that come originally equipped with run-flat tires, as well as those that do not, to address the needs of today’s drivers and give them the confidence they need to get to safety.”

The key to selling consumers on the idea of run-flat tires, Saul adds, is education. “We believe the big challenge dealers face today stems from a lack of consumer awareness with regards to the run-flat tire category,” he says.

“Generally, consumers that purchase new vehicles with conventional tires remain unaware of the benefits run-flat tires can provide. Therefore, drivers typically will not consider run-flats when they are in need of replacement tires. To boost growth in the segment, dealers and manufacturers need to continue to convey the distinct safety benefits of run-flat tires and technological advancements in ride comfort and wear life making them more comparable to conventional tires.”

Pros and cons

The added safety, the reduced vehicle weight, and the extra cargo space are all good reasons for offering run-flats to your customers. On the con side, however, is the premium tire cost, along with the stiffer sidewalls, which can translate into a harsher ride.

With some tire experts recommending run-flats as a replacement only for vehicles that came equipped with run-flats from the factory, and others recommending them for a broader audience as a way of boosting safety overall, in the end, tire retailers will need to educate consumers, explain the pros and cons, and allow the end-users to decide whether this niche product is for them or not.

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