Run flat tyres : boon or bane?

Ask anybody who owns a BMW in India….anybody, and he or she will tell you what a pain in the a** it can be with those “futuristic” run flat tyres.

Not that all of them have horror stories to recount. But that eerie feeling of not having a spare tyre in the boot combined with the bad roads in India instills such insecurity in a driver’s mind, it is not amusing.

And when that is the state of affairs with somebody who spends upwards of Rs 30 lakh on a car, it is tragic? The saving grace…most of them have a chauffeur to suffer on their behalf.

So what are these “run flat” tyres? Basically, these are tyres that can run for a specified distance at a reduced maximum speed when the tyre is flat with negligible or no air without damaging the wheel. BMW says if the tyres go completely flat, the car can be driven for another 150 kilometers with a maximum speed of 80 kmph with little or no loss of stability.

Manufacturers including BMW argue that it does away with the need of spare tyre helping it reduce the weight of the vehicle and improving its performance and fuel economy. The German car maker even extends the argument to the point that it says one day almost all major manufacturers will be forced to adopt this technology as the fuel economy norms are made more stringent.

The flip side of these tyres however is that while it improves the handling and braking of the vehicle it leads to a comparatively jerky ride. More importantly, as many BMW owners in India have opined in various blogs, website and grievance columns, these tyres are ill-suited to the poor road conditions in the country.

A flat tyre in India does not quite happen on a bad day but is a mundane phenomenon. As a run flat tyre cannot be fixed by a roadside mechanic, nor even by an authourised BMW dealer, and can only be replaced. The high cost of these tyres mean increased expenditure and more hassle. Imagine if you are stuck with a flat tyre on a deserted stretch in Ladakh where the nearest dealer is 500 kilometers away. You may be in for a few very long arduous nights.

The cacophony against these tyres is increasing even in developed countries in Europe where the roads are much better paved and more suited to it.

Sample this. Satisfaction is declining among customers whose vehicles are equipped with run-flat or low rolling resistance tires, according to the recently released J.D. Power and Associates 2013 U.S. Original Equipment Tire Customer Satisfaction Study.

Overall satisfaction among owners of luxury vehicles with run-flat tires was 728 (on a 1,000-point scale), compared with 739 among those who own luxury vehicles with standard tires. The gap is even more pronounced among owners of performance sports vehicles, among whom overall satisfaction is 665 with run-flat tires versus 732 with standard tires.

Part of the gap in satisfaction is due to the necessity of having to replace run-flat tires more frequently, compared with standard tires. Nearly one-third (31%) of customers whose vehicle is equipped with run-flat tires have had to replace at least one tire, compared with just 19% of those whose vehicle is equipped with standard tires. In addition, customers with vehicles equipped with standard tires replace their tires after an average of 36,100 kilometres – more than 9600 kilometres beyond the average life of run-flat tires.

Customers with vehicles equipped with run-flat tires are nearly twice as likely as those with vehicles equipped with standard tires to have to replace a tire due to a flat or blowout.

“Owners of performance sports cars with run-flat tires say they ‘definitely will’ recommend their tire brand to friends and family only half as often as those whose car is equipped with standard tires (14% vs. 28%, respectively),” says Brent Gruber, director, global automotive division at J.D. Power and Associates. “That has a potentially tremendous financial impact on tire manufacturers.”

For long considered to have ushered in a revolution in the global tyre landscape prompting companies like BMW to not only adopt them but also design vehicles around them, run flat tyres are fast losing their sheen.  As far as India is concerned, it is way ahead of its time anyway.

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