Suppliers are preparing for explosive growth of tire-pressure monitoring systems, but expect Europe to be less predictable than the US market.
Rules mandating so-called direct systems in the US by 2006 will drive the North American market. Europe's growth will be more market-driven and split between direct and cheaper indirect systems, says Alfonso Di Pasquale, sales manager at Northern Ireland-based Schrader, the biggest supplier of tire-pressure monitoring systems.
"I expect some rules in Europe but before they're effective it may take five years," says Di Pasquale. "But there's going to be an increase in volume in Europe. There's a lot of room for growth."
Schrader estimates the market at 950,000 systems in Europe this year and 4 million in North America. US regulatory changes will push the North American market to 17 million systems by 2008. Europe is expected to reach 3 million units by 2009. Schrader claims to have half the European market and slightly more than half in the US.
French tire maker Michelin has developed a partnership with TRW to make tire pressure systems in the US. A joint venture, EnTire Solutions, has been building systems since 2003.
Germany's Siemens VDO supplies tire-pressure monitoring systems to Renault, PSA, Mazda and Chrysler.
Suppliers like Schrader and Beru, another major player, are also keen on direct systems for the future.
"The only way to get the benefits of a correctly inflated tire is to measure pressure and temperature inside the tire," says Stephan Schneider, Beru sales manager.
Schneider doesn't think Europe will necessarily adopt the same rules as the US. Instead, he expects market forces to drive tire-pressure monitoring systems much like the growth of electronic stability programs. ESP is not mandated but has become a common feature in cars in Europe.
Cost plays an important part in carmakers' choice. Direct systems are more accurate, but cost more.
The US National Highway Traffic Safety Authority estimates the manufacturer's cost for the direct systems at $69 (currently E53). Suppliers say the cost to manufacturers in Europe is about E55 to E75.
But because indirect systems can use the sensors of antilock braking systems -- standard equipment on all cars in Europe -- costs are much lower. The main expense is software plus the warning light and reset button in the car interior. Suppliers say the per-vehicle cost is as low as E10.
European automakers are split on the approach to tire-pressure monitors in Europe. Ironically, the more expensive direct systems are used by French automakers, which don't sell cars in North America.
Renault and PSA/Peugeot-Citroen are going forward with direct tire-pressure monitors, while BMW, Audi, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz prefer indirect technology in Europe.
Many Mercedes, BMW and Audi models offer direct systems only as an option. It costs buyers up to E400.
Siemens VDO's direct tire-pressure monitoring system (top) sends data from sensors in each tire to a central processor. At left is a detailed view of a Beru in-tire sensor (bottom).
"Future indirect systems will satisfy the customer more than direct systems because there are no additional costs during the lifetime of the car," he says. "In our opinion, only indirect systems are able to cover a mass market."
But Renault sees tire pressure systems as essential to safety, says Laurent Gerbet, a company spokesman. Renault has developed a direct system with Michelin. The system has a sensor in each tire to monitor pressure, temperature and acceleration.
"Most of our models are fitted with the tire-pressure monitoring system. Renault is the only automaker to have seven cars with a 5-star rating in Euro NCAP tests," says Gerbet.
Renault offers a direct system as standard on its Laguna and Vel Satis models and as an option on Modus, Megane, Scenic, and Espace.