By Tracy Hyatt
By now you’ve probably seen the Kal Tire television ad where a driver loses control of his car and it goes careening across the ice. A voiceover says, “We test tires, so you don’t have to.” I’ve never really given much thought to tire testing until I started seeing the Kal Tire ad everywhere and learned that Kal Tire is the first retailer in Canada to do its own tire testing beyond what manufacturers do. And most importantly for us Albertans, Kal Tire, our newest AMARewards partner, is the first retailer to test tires on Canadian roads in real Canadian road conditions – ice, slush and snow.
Last week, Kal Tire hosted a media event in Edmonton to give folks insight into how tires are tested. Given my lack of knowledge about tires, I brought along Flaviu Ilovan, an AMA Driver Education instructor, to compare and contrast our experiences. Here’s a recap of a few of the demonstrations that we did and only a fraction of what happens in real testing.
Meet the Testers
Allan Sidorav and Joanne Younker. Allan is a professional race driver and runs an advanced driver training school in BC. He’s got the dream job that any car junkie would want. He’s the guy that auto manufacturers use to test-drive new vehicles. BMW, Mazda, Honda, you name it, Allan has probably tested it. Joanne’s driving experience is equally as impressive and she even tests downhill skis.
Why use professional drivers you may ask. Driver competency and consistency is one of the most important variables of tire testing. Since most of us drive differently, good testing programs use professional drivers to control the human element. Allan and Joanne are so knowledgeable that they know when they’ve turned the steering wheel an inch too much or their braking reaction is delayed. The idea is that you want to control as many variables as you can, from the weather to the car to the driver.
Some of the Testing Equipment
- A ScanGauge is used to measure litres per 100 km, essentially fuel economy. In an actual testing situation, drivers make about 10 laps around a two-kilometre track at highway speeds to calculate the average litres per 100 km.
- A GTech measures G-force, the pressure that gravity exerts on an accelerating object. Ten satellites reading into the device also measure braking distance.
- A thermal infrared thermometer measures surface temperature of the roads. You just point the device down at the road and squeeze a trigger for a reading.
- A Friction Circle measures cornering force.
- A Microphone measures road noise. The vehicle’s radio and air system is turned off to measure the sound in decibels.
Demonstration #1: Wet Braking
The task: Accelerate to about 50km/hr on a wet surface and then apply the ABS brakes to bring the vehicle to a stop.
A 4 cm deep puddle about 10 metres long and five metres wide was created and we applied the brakes as soon as the car hit the water. On a rainy summer day, you could easily find yourself driving in this condition. I fully expected to feel the car loose traction, possibly hydroplane and travel a long distance, but to our surprise we didn’t hydroplane. At the high speed that we entered the puddle, we did create a massive splash that you could feel hug the vehicle. We did, however, travel a long braking distance. Flaviu’s braking distance was around 32 metres on his first try and I travelled about two metres more than Flaviu. With each try, we clipped off about a metre.
Demonstration #2: Dry Braking
The task: Accelerate to 90 km/hour and then apply the ABS brakes to bring the vehicle to a complete stop.
It sounds easy enough if you have a kilometre or two to push your speed to 90 km but we had about 100 metres. The phrase “pedal to the medal” should come to mind when I paint a picture of Joanne yelling “harder, harder, harder” at us. On our first try, Flaviu and I found it very hard to accelerate quickly. It goes against everything they teach in driving school – accelerate gradually and smoothly. On our second and third attempts, we got used to pressing the gas pedal down to the floor and braking so hard that the ABS brakes kicked in. My braking distance was 32.1 metres on dry pavement and Flaviu clocked in a metre less. The G-force is similar to what you experience on an a roller coaster and Flaviu mentioned that after braking so hard his hip actually hurt a bit. I certainly wouldn’t want to do this emergency maneuver on an icy road with the wrong tires. As Alan put it, “The right tires are probably the difference between a trip to an auto body shop and driving home.”
Demonstration #3: Cornering
The task: Drive in a 60 metre radius circle and slowly increase your speed until the tire breaks out of the corner.
While you’d probably never find yourself driving around and around in a circle, you find yourself on on/off ramps often. Within seconds, Joanne effortlessly got her vehicle up to about 60km/hr. I honestly don’t know exactly how fast she was going because my eyes were fixated on the hood of the car and I was holding onto the car door. Joanne, on the other hand, was very relaxed at the wheel and she barely moved it. When the car broke away from the corner, the Friction Circle on the dashboard measured the lateral distance. My cohort Flaviu had no trouble with this exercise. He was completely comfortable at the wheel, locking in his steering wheel and keeping his eyes focused ahead. I, on the other hand, was literally all over the place. I couldn’t accelerate smoothly and just ended up jerking the car through the circle as I struggled to get the car to a breakaway speed. My vice-grip on the steering wheel probably didn’t help either, nor did my left-to-right sawing of the wheel. Though I did walk away with a better understanding of how cornering performance is measured and what to look for when purchasing a tire.
Four things that we learned
1. Kal Tire’s tire testing program is extremely comprehensive. We had no idea about the amount of work that goes into testing tires and we only saw 5% of what they do in real testing. In the actual tests, there are eight categories: braking, cornering, road noise, hydroplaning, slush straight-line stability and slush cornering. Equipment worth thousands of dollars is used to measure precise driving lines, speed, GPS info and g-force.
2. The testers aren’t Kal Tire employees. They’re an independent group comprised of international race car drivers, rally champions, advanced driving instructors and vehicle development testers, as well as former RCMP and military officers with extensive driving experience. Competent drivers ensure that a vehicle is driven with precision for each and every test. Alan films the drivers when they’re testing and goes through the footage to ensure that the driving is consistent.
3. In an emergency situation, the eyes are the first things to go. “You start looking at the wrong things. Then you start getting the wrong information and that makes things so much worse,” says Allan. It’s so true. Throughout the tests, I found my eyes focused intensely at the hood of the car and not looking straight ahead at where I wanted the car to go.
4. This point is actually nothing new, but worth reminding people every year when the snow flies. You really have to look at your own driving habits to decide what tires are best for you. All season tires, also known as “3-season tires” perform well in spring and summer conditions, but lose traction when the temp drops below 7 degrees. All-weather tires give you good grip on snow, slush, wet roads, side roads and regular pavement. They can handle moderate temperature changes and don’t necessarily need to be swapped out for winter tires when the weather changes. And if you’re doing a lot of highway driving or live in a rural area, you might want to consider a winter snow tire. The added elasticity and special tread patterns give you better grip on snow-packed roads.