HILTON HEAD, S.C. — Class-action litigation seriously could damage or even stop sales of run-flat tires in the future, according to the president of a global market research firm.
"That´s the key question going forward-whether class-action lawyers have smelled blood in the water," said Paul Ita of Notch Consulting, who spoke at the recent Clemson Tire Industry Conference in Hilton Head, S.C. He said he has a file six inches thick that details consumer complaints about run-flats.
Ita said Toyota Motor North America acted swiftly and responsibly to resolve the class-action suit filed against the company regarding consumer dissatisfaction over run-flats on the car maker´s Sienna minivan. Toyota also decided to stop offering run-flats on that model.
BMW accounts for 70 percent of global original equipment demand for run-flats, and the high-performance market is likely to remain their niche, Ita said. The example of the Toyota Sienna, he said, pointed out all too clearly that the introduction of run-flats in mainstream vehicles can backfire.
Even restricted to high-performance vehicles, run-flats can´t be expected to gain wide acceptance without more extensive distribution and service networks, Ita said.
"Until such distribution and service networks are in place, convenience will not be a selling point for run-flat tires. Furthermore, tire makers risk alienating highly influential early adopters if they roll out these tires without an adequate support network in place."
Other factors besides cost and service difficulties could limit the growth of the run-flat market, according to Ita.
"Ongoing improvements in tire technology are making blowouts less likely," he said. The growing prevalence of cell phones, roadside assistance and tire pressure monitoring systems also mitigate the need for run-flats, even though that type of tire can´t operate without TPMS.
"TPMS diffusion may actually mute long-term run-flat tire demand because pressure warnings will reduce the likelihood of catastrophic blowouts caused by gradual pressure loss," he said.
While Ita didn´t break down run-flat production statistics by tire maker, he did say worldwide run-flat demand grew to 7.4 million units in 2006 from 500,000 in 2000. Forty-eight percent of the demand came from Germany because of BMW.
The rest of the demand was: other European Union countries, 25 percent; NAFTA countries, 16 percent; Asia, 7 percent; and other regions, 4 percent.