It’s human nature to look to a higher authority for answers to life’s many questions. I’ve just returned from a fantastic trip to India with our wonderful Infinity partners and associates where, amongst many other delights, we visited amazing temples, ancient ruins and iconic monuments – each designed to inspire and influence through the generations.
In the tyre business we can often be a cynical lot – but if there’s one thing that’s talked about in serious tones and knowing nods, it’s the ‘higher authority’ of the magazine tyre test. Nowadays there is quite a proliferation of such tests but the most recognised of them all is the German motoring organisation ADAC’s bi-annual summer/ winter ‘reifentest’. Amongst many Germans (as well as fellow Swiss and Austrian drivers) the ADAC tyre test has taken on a reputation both far and wide with manufacturers vying for a ‘highly recommended’ seal of approval. ADAC was founded over a century ago and is the largest automobile club in Europe with over 19 million members who avidly follow the magazine’s advice. The results of these tyre tests are also syndicated across Europe and beyond (for example in Which? magazine in U.K.).
However, such tests have recently come under renewed scrutiny by the introduction of the European tyre label scheme (in place now for over a year). Like the magazine tests with their often blunt ‘not recommended’ conclusions set against the ‘highly recommended’ score usually reserved for more established brands, the expectation was for a clear divergence of label results between selfproclaimed ‘premium’ brands and the lesser known newer ‘economy’ names. But if that was the thinking, it’s not quite gone to plan, with new entrant tyre brands exhibiting label results close to, or sometimes exceeding, those of better known competitors.
So, the argument goes, the label is too simplistic -there are lots of other tests that aren’t included- tread wear, aquaplaning, dry braking being just three examples. And so, the best way for the tyre buyer to find out all this important information is to read one of the many ‘consumer champion’ magazines. And this is where ADAC has stood out as the ‘King’ of tyre tests.
However, ADAC’s unexpected fallibility recently surfaced when news broke of revelations that an executive had been falsifying some voting results in its annual ‘Yellow Angel’ (Car of the Year) award. Instead of totalling 34,000 votes, the winning VW Golf actually only received 3,400 member scores. Although this has been described as an isolated occurrence, even Germany’s Transport Minister has stated that the organisation must “lay all the cards on the table”.
Admitting that the organisation has its work cut out to repair trust, ADAC’s Managing Director can’t have been pleased to subsequently hear that concerns have now spread to the organisation’s ‘Reifentest’. Firstly, a former design engineer of a European tyre manufacturer was quoted in the ‘Servicezeit’ consumer TV show on German channel WDR as saying that special sets of tyres were prepared for magazine tests that had nothing to do with the tyres actually commercially available in the market. Secondly, another former employee of a ‘premium’ tyre manufacturer informed the same WDR show that scoring requirements for the ADAC test were shared in advance and positive modifications to the tyres for testing were able to be made thereafter.
And the story keeps on going. In April, tyre industry veteran Mr. Willy Matzke (former head of testing at ADAC’s Austrian ‘sister’ association OAMTC), joined in with his own observations of testing over the decades.
According to Herr Matzke, there were “virtually unlimited” opportunities for manufacturers to manipulate tyre tests. From using manufacturer-owned test tracks to switching tyres mid-test to using machinery only operated by employees of tyre companies….well it’s quite incredible what is now flying out of ‘Pandora’s Box’.
So where now from here for our industry and its tyre comparisons? Well, for me personally, I certainly still support the usefulness of magazine tyre tests – any way we can get the public talking about tyres and understanding their nuances and characteristics as well as their safety value must be a good thing. And there is no doubt that ADAC has been a positive force on the German (and European) driving public over the years. So it’s a real pity we are now discussing alleged tyre test manipulation. But it’s important that we get some clarity since the playing field needs to be level for all brands and recent allegations and opinions suggest that tyre tests may have sometimes been a ‘cosy’ set-up unduly influenced by a small group of manufacturer representatives and their secretive ‘magazine test’ technical teams. Remember that in many European markets a ‘highly recommended’ tyre test result is worth its weight in gold for the short-term marketing value alone so the temptation to influence or ‘assist’ motoring magazines in any possible way must be immense.
As a long-term partner of two of China’s leading tyre producers, it also must be said that although the new EU tyre label is levelling the playing field in terms of consumer tyre brand perception and recommendation, there have been several recent occasions where Chinese-produced tyres as a homogenous group have been negatively tainted by some motoring magazine articles. So, in the light of such tyre test ‘finger pointing’, should I also now question if such articles are possibly ‘open to influence’ by those with connections who would try their hardest to keep new tyre brands (even those with first class manufacturing facilities) from gaining any foothold in the European arena?
In the next edition of ‘Talking Tread’, I’ll try to highlight some of the ways forward for our industry to ensure that magazine tests can possibly regain their complete validity in the eyes of the motoring public. Until then, I will continue to read the ever growing number of magazine tyre tests – but certainly with a new degree of scepticism.