When I first started in the tire business back in 1982, the switch from tube-type bias truck tires to tubeless radial truck tires was in full swing. We still did a lot of “split rim” business back in the day, but most fleets faced the inevitable and within a few years, tubeless radial truck tires and retreads represented the bulk of the business.

Fleets didn't have a lot of choices back then. All of the major truck tire manufacturers had steer, drive and trailer tires that would consistently deliver thousands of original tread miles and then live another life or two as a retread (where there were equally few options). There were also a number of unknown brands that teased with a great price and a nice-looking tread only to leave the fleet standing at the scrap pile staring at virgin casings with a broken heart, again. It reached the point where some of our customers wouldn't even consider an “off-brand” tire because they didn't want to take a chance at losing the casings.

In some ways times have changed, and in some ways they haven't. The Big Three, a.k.a. Bridgestone, Goodyear and Michelin, are still the Big Three, but now all of them have a cradle-to-grave new tire and retread program. For the large fleets with North American operations, bargaining power has never been higher as the major tire companies adjust production to meet reduced demand. Don't be fooled, however, into thinking they will keep filling warehouses and eventually be forced to dump inventory at discounts, because they are already taking steps to manage supply through layoffs, plant closures and production shifts to keep prices stable.

Major competitors to the Big Three have also come a long way when it comes to durability and retreadability. Previously thought of “off-brands” have steadily built a reputation for quality truck tires and casings over the years, while others are a hit with some tires and a miss with others. And even with the consolidation of the retread industry, fleets still have the option of using independent retread suppliers that are not tied to a tire manufacturer. All of these factors add up to a point in time when fleets of any size have more buying power than ever given the current state of the industry.

I've said many times that a fleet that does not constantly test different tires and retreads is making a huge mistake. When a tenth-of-a-mile-per-gallon improvement results in thousands or millions of dollars in fuel savings, every fuel-efficient compound on the market should be tested if the fleet is focused on fuel economy. If the primary goals are miles per 32nd or tire cost per mile, then there are a lot of long-wearing, deep-tread tires and retreads just waiting for a spot on some test vehicles.

Unlike the old days where only the largest fleets had the luxury of running a tire test, there are a lot of reputable tire and retread companies that will gladly supply the manpower to measure and track the test tires for just about any size company. If tire and retread testing is something new, then there will be some growing pains since drivers and maintenance personnel will have to be more flexible to ensure the test vehicles are available from time to time so the data can be recorded. But the payoff is either the reassurance that current suppliers are providing the best value or the possibility that a different supplier may be able to offer additional value.

Either way, the fleet that never tests will never know.