HILTON HEAD, S.C.—The tire industry is one of the most innovative and socially responsible in the world, and the job of the Rubber Manufacturers Association is to bring that message to government policymakers and the public, according to its new president.
"Unlike most of you, I am new to the tire industry," said Anne Forristall Luke to her audience at the 33rd Clemson University Global Tire Industry Conference, held April 19-21 in Hilton Head, S.C. "My message here today is how we can do a better job of telling our story."
The RMA's mission, according to Luke, is to strengthen the reputation and competitiveness of the U.S. tire manufacturing industry. Recently the association developed a blueprint of how to proceed with this mission, she said.
Its research showed that the tire industry had a public favorability rating of 68 percent, which placed it in the middle of the pack among U.S. industries—lower than technology, retail or automotive, but above oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, banking and airlines.
When asked, "Is the tire industry a good industry?" 59 percent of the public—including 53 percent of Washington elites and 62 percent of motorists—said yes.
"Overall the tire industry has a very positive image to the extent people think about the industry at all," she said. "But they don't know the industry all that well. Their understanding is pretty shallow. Our research gives us a solid base on how to move forward.
"If we don't tell our story, no one will tell it for us. Every industry association needs to be doing this."
According to Luke, stakeholders want to hear more from the industry in three key areas: safety through innovation, product stewardship, and economic impact.
"Safety is the No. 1 driving force for all of us," she said. "Tires are technological marvels. Innovation in engineering, chemistry and design all drive product safety and performance improvements."
Nevertheless, tires are grudge purchases, with consumers focused mainly on how much they cost and how long they will last, Luke said.
"What makes our message more accessible is if we focus on what the tire manufacturers are doing," she said. "If they know we are trying to design the safest tire possible, then consumers are more willing to do their part, too."
In product sustainability, the tire industry also has a positive message, which is important with younger drivers who are mindful of corporate social responsibility, Luke said.
Among the sustainability achievements the tire industry can boast, she said, are:
- Reducing aromatic oils, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions;
- Innovation in the use of biogenic materials, including plant-based oils and alternative rubber sources such as guayule and dandelions; and
- Conducting a global initiative to determine the effects of tires on the environment.
The tire industry's record in end-of-life tires is similarly strong, with a 93 percent reduction in scrap tire stockpiles since 1990 and nearly 90 percent of all scrap tires generated annually in the U.S. going to end-use markets, according to Luke.
In economic value to the U.S., the tire industry also excels, Luke said.
"We employ nearly 100,000 workers now, and tire manufacturers are investing in new and renovated facilities," she said. "We had eight members when I started in June 2016. We now have 10, and soon we probably will have 12 or 13."
The RMA's efforts to disseminate its message "really moved the needle" on public perception of the tire industry, according to Luke. The industry's favorability rating rose from 68 to 90 percent, and the perception of its importance to the country rose from 77 to 93 percent.
Like everyone else, the RMA was surprised by the election results of Nov. 8, 2016, according to Luke.
"But the good news was that we were prepared for whomever would be in the White House," she said.
The new administration has presented challenges, according to Luke. It has been slow in appointing sub-Cabinet officials—including a new administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, she said. And the regulatory freeze, including the "two-for-one" executive order, has been inconvenient in some ways.
On the other hand, she said, the Trump administration presents a triple opportunity for the tire industry:
- Working with the administration on its priorities;
- Reducing needless burdens on the industry; and
- Advancing industry objectives.
Luke said one of the industry's prime objectives will be to obtain implementation of the rolling resistance and wet traction standards in the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act. These are of vital importance to public safety, she said.
"When these standards are implemented, NHTSA will need to ensure that all manufacturers comply," she said.
Environmental regulations also will take front and center in the new administration, according to Luke. Congress passed reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act last year, and the RMA is currently working with the Environmental Protection Agency to revise emissions regulations for tire manufacturing facilities.
President Trump's stated plans for infrastructure improvements also give the RMA an opportunity for a leadership position, according to Luke.
The election, however, threw two important tire industry initiatives—the labeling and consumer education provisions of the tire fuel efficiency labeling standard issued by NHTSA in 2010—Luke said.
"The president issued his executive order on regulations, and the tire fuel efficiency rule falls into that category," she said. "We don't even have a NHTSA administrator nominee yet, so I don't think the chances are good in the near term."