It’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of marketing: why can’t tire manufacturers sell safety the way the automakers have done?
Car manufacturers have done an incredible job of selling the public on safety, to the point where many consumers will make their buying decisions based on safety systems they don’t even understand.
Many years ago, I taught a series of “how your car works” clinics. Without fail, whenever I got into explaining things like anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control and airbags, I’d get blank stares from most of the people.
They’d paid a lot of money for these features, which were expensive add-on options back then, even though they had no clue what they actually did.
The automaker had convinced them they needed these things to be safe. That goes to show you the power of marketing.
But tires? For many car owners, tires are solely a grudge purchase made when the old ones wear out. Not only that, but the primary consideration is price: give me the cheapest thing that’ll fit.
Here’s a fact: the only thing keeping your vehicle on the road is a set of four rubber contact patches that add up to an area roughly the size of a sheet of typing paper.
There isn’t a safety feature on your car, from anti-lock brakes to stability control to airbags, that isn’t there for the sole purpose of trying to get your butt out of the fire after your tires have lost their grip on the asphalt.
Despite that fact, the essential importance of having a good-quality, season-specific, well-maintained tire as the cornerstone of vehicle safety has bypassed a huge number of motorists.
Good-quality tires do more than just cover the rims. They grip the driving surface, push away snow, and prevent hydroplaning, a potentially dangerous situation where they ride on top of water on the asphalt.
They improve the vehicle’s braking and cornering ability. And when they’re properly inflated, they also help increase fuel economy.
Yet, tire manufacturers seem unable to get this across. Maybe it’s the advertising: save for a couple of ultimately ineffective ads, like one that showed a baby riding in a tire, the whole “this is where safety starts” message doesn’t seem to be there.
Maybe tires have been around for so long there’s no way you can make them new and exciting, the way innovative technology can be.
All I know is that when I see something like a newer Volvo wearing bald tires in the winter, as I did a little while ago, the message just isn’t getting across.
And as long as it doesn’t, we’re going to be left with cars that have to try to do what their tires simply couldn’t.