Automakers' decision to eliminate the spare tire on many new vehicles may leave more than 30 million drivers vulnerable at the roadside, according to new research from AAA.
According to AAA, tire inflator kits, which it says are a high-cost alternative for consumers, have replaced the spare tire in millions of vehicles over the last 10 model years and, due to their limited functionality, cannot provide even a temporary fix for many common tire-related problems.
AAA is now calling on automakers to put consumer interests first and halt the elimination of the spare tire.
"Flat tires are not a disappearing problem, but spare tires are," said John Nielsen, AAA's managing director of Automotive Engineering and Repair. "AAA responds to more than four million calls for flat tire assistance annually and, despite advances in vehicle technology, we have not seen a decline in tire-related calls over the last five years."
AAA says that, along with run-flat tires, tire inflator kits have now replaced spare tires on 29 million vehicles in the last 10 model years, steadily increasing from five percent of 2006 model year vehicles to more than one-in-three 2015 model year vehicles (36 percent) sold.
AAA points out that, while each four-pound kit eliminates approximately 30 pounds of weight, the replacement cost is high. With some kits costing up to $300 per use, AAA says that a tire inflator kit can cost consumers up to 10 times more than a simple tire repair and has a shelf life of only four to eight years.
"Automakers are facing increasingly-stringent fuel economy standards and the spare tire has become a casualty in an effort to reduce weight and boost miles-per-gallon," continued Nielsen. "Advances in automotive engineering allow for weight to be reduced in ways that don't leave motorists stranded at the roadside."
AAA tested the most common tire inflator kits in today's vehicles and found that the units worked well in some scenarios, but says that they are not a substitute for a spare tire.
For an inflator kit to work effectively, a tire must be punctured in the tread surface and the object must remain in the tire. Used correctly, the kit then coats the inner wall of the tire with a sealant and a compressor re-inflates the tire. If the puncture-causing object is no longer in the tire, a sidewall is damaged or a blowout occurs, AAA says that a tire inflator kit cannot remedy the situation and the vehicle will require a tow.
AAA's research also found that knowing how to change a tire is also a skill that is now less prevalent among younger age groups. More than one-in-five millennial drivers (ages 18-34) do not know how to change a tire, compared to the nearly 90 percent of drivers aged 35-54 that know this important skill. Gender differences also exist: while nearly all men (97 percent) claim to know how to change a tire, only 68 percent of women boast the same ability.
"Consumers may mistakenly believe that inflator kits are a one-size-fits-all alternative to installing a spare tire," Nielsen added. "The reality is these kits can accommodate specific types of tire damage, but having the option to install a spare tire can save stranded drivers time and money."