Michelin wants to put more cars on the road to test the wear and tear of real world miles on experimental treads.
South Carolina lawmakers this week are to consider a measure that would increase the number of research and development license plates given to manufacturers so they can take the tires on public roads even though those tires have not been certified as roadworthy by the U.S. Transportation Department.
State Sen. Paul Campbell said Michelin asked lawmakers to increase the number of license tags available to 400 from 30. The bill as passed by the Senate authorizes up to 100 tags. The House adjourned debate on the bill last week and is scheduled to take it up again this week.
"The problem with doing something like tires is because it's such a vital safety part of your vehicle, you have to have enough tests so that when you put it on an automobile you know it's going to work," said Campbell, R-Goose Creek. "You can only do so much in the laboratory, but then you've got to put them on the road."
Michelin says its main goal in the legislation is to firm up the reciprocal agreements that allow it to operate the cars in other states that have similar tags. The company, which won't say what type of tires it is testing, said the final stage of testing for tires is how they perform over thousands of miles in real-world driving conditions, not just on a test track.
"A lot of that is to rack up real world miles so that we have durability for tread-wear warranties and that kind of thing," said Michelin spokeswoman Lynn Mann. "If you're going to put a lot of miles on a tire, going around and around a track is maddening. You really just need to get them out there in the field and let them run for that kind of tread-wear kind of information."
The company still has to pay fees and taxes associated with the licenses, but the tags allow them to operate the cars with test tires. There is no state or federal inspection of the tires before they hit the road and Michelin says it uses professional drivers and the cars are fully insured.
Michelin test cars have been involved in four crashes on South Carolina roads since 2008 -- three crashes in 2008 and one in 2009 -- according to records from the state Public Safety and Motor Vehicle departments.
In one crash, a tire, rim and all, came off a test pickup truck, crossed over into the other lane and damaged a Chevrolet Tahoe and injured its driver.
"Somebody, I guess just didn't do their pretrip, they didn't tighten the lug nuts," said 42-year-old Jennifer Nelson of Gray Court. "It came off rim and everything."
Nelson said Michelin paid to fix her car and paid her doctor bill for minor injuries. She said she thinks about the wreck when she sees the test cars driving around Greenville County, but she isn't overly worried about safety issues.
"I do see them on the back roads on the way home or after I've picked up my kids and that comes to mind; the accident always comes to mind when you see them," she said. "But I was back on the road the next day.
"It was just one of those freak accidents and I just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time."
In Michigan, where the nation's big 3 automakers design and build cars, there are 23,500 research and development tags that let companies put their cars on the road for test drives, said Fred Woodhams, spokesman for the Michigan secretary of state's office.
Woodhams said all vehicles and parts have to be up the highway standards, but the state does not inspect the cars.
"It's up to the company to police that," Woodhams said. "The state relies on manufacturers to put only standard equipment on the road."