I haven’t written about cars in a while, but I still get info and press releases pitching articles for me to write. I got one yesterday that I found rather interesting, and would have written about if I was writing for someplace that would publish it. Now that the embargo has lifted, I can talk about it freely. The press release was from Tactile Mobility, announcing the availability of a new system that monitors the condition of your tires — not their pressure, as is common in many cars today, but their tread depth.
Personally, I just look at my tires to see if the tread’s getting low. But most average drivers view their cars as appliances, not caring about basic maintenance beyond having someone else do it for them from time to time. Tire pressure monitoring systems became so common in the first place because people simply don’t check their tire pressure, which can lead to unsafe handling, blowouts, and crashes. Pressure is important, but I would argue that tread depth is even more critical to safety. Without adequate tread, your tires won’t perform like they should. Sure, on a nice dry road they might actually grip a little better than stock (that’s why racing slicks are… well, slick), but as soon as you hit rain, snow, dirt, or mud, they’ll skate all over the surface instead of digging in to find grip.
“Tactile Mobility utilizes vehicles’ existing sensors to gather data such as wheel speed, wheel angle, RPM and more,” reads the press release. “This enables the company to generate real-time actionable insights about the vehicle, road, and vehicle-road dynamics.” Any modern car is already generating this data through its numerous sensors. With the right analysis, this data can tell a computer when the tread is too low. As tread wears off, the tire gets a little bit smaller. For example, the stock tire size for my 2005 Mazda 6 is 205/60-16. It rotates 786 times every mile it goes down the road. As the tread wears out, it has to spin more rapidly to cover the same distance. So if it’s rotating, say, 820 times per mile instead of 786, a computer can figure out that overall diameter is too small, and trigger a warning that the tread depth is low.
This system isn’t perfect. If I put a slightly smaller snow tire on the car, which is a common practice, it would trigger a low tread depth warning even with brand new tires. If I put a larger tire on, like the all-terrain tires I put on my Jetta Ute, the tread could wear out and the system wouldn’t notice, because it’s still not spinning rapidly enough to indicate a problem This wouldn’t be a problem for the casual driver, though, who has no reason to run anything but the stock size, or close to it.
“Tire tread depth is one of many important data metrics that Tactile Mobility generates, collects, and transforms into actionable insights for OEMs, Tier-1s, fleet managers, repair shops, insurance companies and everyday drivers,” the press release c ontinues. “Tactile Mobility is developing a comprehensive suite of automated tire health monitoring capabilities which addresses all major tire conditions affecting vehicle safety including tire stiffness, tire type mismatch, tire blowout prediction and more.
“OEMs can use tire tread depth data to improve driver and passenger safety by ensuring optimal configuration of their vehicles, providing in-vehicle alerts, preconditioning vehicle systems, referring drivers to repair shops, and much more. Tier-1s can leverage this data to produce the safest, long-lasting tires on the market. Replacing tires is one of the largest expenses for fleet managers; therefore, the ability to monitor tread depth in real-time greatly reduces their vehicles’ downtime due to excessive tire wear and ultimately cuts costs. Insurance companies can leverage tire tread depth data to conduct personalized risk profiling, provide optimized insurance plans that are customized to different driving styles, and incentivize tire repair.”
There are certainly benefits to this type of system. A driver who doesn’t bother to look at their tires occasionally would get notified that they need new tires, replace them, and be safer on the road. It’s difficult for corporate vehicle fleets to keep track of the condition of all their vehicles, even small fleets like the courier company I worked for in Maine. Such a system would be a great way to help them do that. They could arrange a substitute vehicle for that driver and bring them in to swap to new ones. If already mounted on spare wheels by the time the driver shows up, it’s a simple NASCAR-style pit stop to change wheels, and the driver’s back out on the road with minimal downtime.
There’s also the Big Brother aspect to consider. I’m already reluctant to provide information about my car and driving patterns to insurance companies for fear they’d use it against me, despite my driving clean record with no at-fault crashes. Would my rates go up if they detect me driving 10mph over the speed limit, even if doing so is actually safer on a major highway than being a moving roadblock at the speed limit? Will they drop my coverage if they detect speeds way too high for the street, even though I was achieving them legally at a track day? In the case of this technology, would they deny an accident claim if the data indicates my tread depth was too low? If I slide off a snowy road, and the system tips off police that it thinks my tread depth was too low because I’m running smaller snow tires for winter, will I get a ticket for defective equipment even though my tread is actually safe? Data is good, but it’s a double-edged sword.
Ultimately, I think the proper solution for monitoring the condition of your tires is the way I do it: using your eyes. If they look squished at the bottom, check your pressure and fill if needed. If the tread depth is low, replace them. This type of basic maintenance should be the responsibility of every driver. Unfortunately, it’s not, which is why these types of systems become necessary for the greater good.