California Steps Toward First Tire Efficiency Ratings in U.S.; Federal Agency to Follow

Last week, California proposed a new tire efficiency rating system based on a tire's energy consumption during driving. Under the system, efficiency information on all tires sold in the state is collected in a public database and the most efficient tires are classified as "Fuel Efficient Tires." The goal of the program is simple: give consumers reliable information about efficiency that can easily be part of their tire buying decision, along with traction, durability and other tire characteristics. For you, finding the most efficient tires that fit your car is straightforward because only the top performers receive the Fuel Efficient Tire designation. It's like ENERGY STAR® for your replacement treads.

Having a tire efficiency rating system is critical to making the use of fuel efficient tires widespread. You can't tell an efficient tire from an inefficient one just by looking at the tread pattern. Tire efficiency is a function of the rubber compounds in the tire (see my tire efficiency primer for more details). In the future--July 2011 is when the proposal requires tire manufacturers to report efficiency data to the State--you will be able to lookup on the Internet or ask a California dealer for the efficiency rating of any tire available for sale. The efficiency values will be based on an internationally standardized test procedure, which is expected to be finalized in October.

The rating system is designed to encourage manufacturer competition in efficiency. The Fuel Efficient Tire designation is reserved for tires that have an efficiency rating that is no more than 15% from the most efficient model of the same size and load rating. The most efficient tire--the Prius of its class, if you will--sets the bar, so an innovative tire maker that produces the top model can control which other models make the grade.

The next step to ensure that the tire market becomes more efficient is to adopt minimum efficiency performance standards for tires. Again, similar to standards for household appliances, efficiency standards on tires encourage on-going investments in innovations that will cut tire rolling resistance and, therefore, vehicle fuel consumption and emissions. Under California law (enacted through NRDC-sponsored legislation), the State's regulators are authorized to establish performance standards for tires, and the efficiency data collection and rating system being proposed provides a basis for setting the stringency of that standard.

California's leadership in tire efficiency can drive similar action nationally, and in fact, it already has. As other states considered adopting programs that mirror California's, the tire industry jumped to support a federal program that would preempt new tire regulations in other states. The federal program, which was passed under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, directs U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to develop a tire efficiency consumer information program by the end of 2009. The NHTSA requirement, however, falls short of the California law because it fails to require minimum efficiency standards. NHTSA's proposal for a rating system is expected soon; it is currently in review at OMB.

California should act quickly to finalize their proposed rating system. Energy efficiency should become a new business for tire manufacturers across the industry ASAP. The tire industry will complain that the California program is too onerous and it may say the same of the federal requirements. It's time, however, for the tire manufacturers to provide efficiency data to the public just like appliance and car makers do today. Improved tire efficiency is a win for all: manufacturers can promote new, greener replacement tires (using solid data), drivers can save money at the pump and we all can benefit from reduced oil consumption and carbon pollution from our vehicles.