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Manifesto: Bring Spare Tires Back (Even If Temporary Ones) – or Give Us Airless Tires

Theoretical discussions inspire people to divide into teams: those in favor and those against the main idea. It is not unusual to see the advocates from one side move to the other as soon as they see themselves in the discussed situation. I confess I never gave the spare tire controversy much thought until a recent family trip. I am now definitely against the idea of not having one in the car.
A spare tire with all the component necessary to replace a tire. I want oneThis is the macarrão, or spaghetti, a tire repair kit sold in BrazilThis is the metal plate that punctured my tireThis is how my tire looked from it from the inside when I removed the metal plateThis is how my tire looked from the outside when I removed the metal plate from it
Most modern vehicles are getting rid of it. They now bring a tire repair kit that automakers claim to be a much more rational solution. They are the foremost advocates of us just forgetting about replacing a tire in case of a puncture. It is easy to understand why.

Before this movement to eliminate spare tires started, automakers had to spend money on five tires per car. They also needed another wheel, a scissor jack, and a wheel wrench. Cars had to be designed with the extra tire in mind, with a convenient and protected location to store it. In Europe, some vehicles were designed with a spare tire basket located underneath the trunk.

When these projects started reaching developing countries, the spare tires were often stolen. Thieves thought this was such a good deal that they began breaking trunk lids to steal the spare tires. And putting cars in jack stands or bricks to get their tires and wheels, as some developed countries have also experienced. Accessory companies started selling locks for spare tire baskets.

That shows how much money car companies are saving after convincing customers that they do not need a spare tire. Multiply the tire, wheel, jack, and wrench by millions of cars sold every year, and you will see getting rid of these components saved millions of dollars. Car companies greenwashed that by saying they were saving petrol and raw materials and helping cars weigh less, which made them more fuel efficient. Although all that is also true, what do you think convinced shareholders it was a good idea? Exactly.

Soon the space reserved to store the spare tire in the car’s body became an extra room for the trunk. Some carmakers also placed batteries there for their hybrids and plug-in hybrids. A small compressor powered by the 12V battery and a bottle of tire sealant would be all that any driver would ever need in case of an emergency. If only that were true…

My family had plans to visit parents, relatives, and friends abroad before the international health crisis struck in 2019. We had already bought the tickets by then and postponed the trip twice before it was possible to travel again. When governments said it was, the airport close to my home no longer had direct flights. We would need to go to the Lisbon airport, a more than 200-mile (320-kilometer) road trip. When the day to embark finally arrived, we left home at 6 AM to get to the airport at around 9:30 AM.

We were only 25 mi (40 km) away from our destination when the Tire Monitor System (TMS) warned us that the rear right tire was low. The message was to slowly stop and check what happened. I didn’t even need to get too close to hear the whistle coming from the tire. Whatever it was, it was bad.

I immediately reached for the tire repair kit in the trunk and turned on the air compressor. The tire sealant bottle was a little more challenging to remove from the trunk and apparently had no user instructions. I made a real mess when I connected the bottle to the compressor, and the rubber goo started leaking from the upper side. The bottle has an additional hose that I should have connected to the punctured tire. Make sure you know how these things work before traveling. It will at least save you from the embarrassment I felt.

Luckily, some tire sealant was left, but it made no difference: the tire was still whistling. I filled the tire and got back to the highway at 80 kph (50 mph). The warning still ordered me to stop slowly, but there was nowhere safe to do so. I parked close to a road phone boot to ask for assistance from Brisa, the A1 highway concession operator. My wife tried to reach them three times but got no answer, so I kept stopping, inflating the tire, and going a bit further until I reached a gas station.

I was sure they would have a tire repair shop there, but there was none. Then I searched for a tire repair kit at the convenience store. The Aveiras Service Stop did not have any. All I could do was buy water and chewing gum (which I tried to use to stop the leak, but to no use) and learn that I could not leave my car there and take a cab: it would be towed after 12 hours in the same spot. We had a plane to catch, and I was running out of options.

After inflating the tire at least three more times, I found out what was causing the leak. I naively thought that I could remove the metal object and do something to avoid losing so much pressure for the next 30 km (19 mi). A truck driver lent me pliers, and I got a long and wide metal plate from the tire. The problem got even worse.

There we were, with a flight departing in a few hours and a car without a spare tire that I had no idea where to leave or how to fix. My wife called the insurance company. Liberty called a cab to take us to the airport and got the car towed. I would be thankful if I did not need to ask for more than a week where my vehicle was and if I could get the tire fixed wherever it was. The only thing I heard from Liberty was: “We’ll get back to you in 72 hours.” And they never did. We got back to Lisbon, and the insurance company only told me what to do after I called their emergency service twice. Someone hung up on my face the first time.

Believe it or not, the solution was to replace the four tires. The Continental PremiumContact 5 tires I had in the car are no longer manufactured. I know that because my car came with these tires on the front axle and a Bridgestone set on the rear when I bought it from the BMW Premium Selection used vehicle program. My last attempt to keep them was to purchase two used PremiumContact 5 from a used tire store. Confirming that “out of evil comes good,“now I have Michelin rubber in all four wheels, thanks to a sweet deal Feu Vert offered me.

This whole story would have fitted a single paragraph if I had a spare tire. I would have received the TMS message to stop, parked the car, replaced the tire, and headed to the airport on time. Simple as that. This is why my next car will have a spare tire, even if a temporary one. My fear is that we won’t have many options left.

One of the arguments the advocates of tire repair kits have is that what happened to me is an exception, something unusual that does not justify the expenses or the extra weight a car would carry if all of them still had to have spare tires. Tell that to the people I see on highways replacing a flat tire. Statistically, we may be irrelevant, but I do not want to be left with only one option again if I have a tire issue while traveling: calling a company for assistance. While my car does not have one, I am improving my chances with a more effective repair kit called “macarrão” (spaghetti or pasta, in Portuguese). It is now right beside the air compressor in my PHEV.

If we are discussing if it isn’t too soon to push cars with massive battery packs to most customers, why are we silent about the dismissal of spare tires? There are no raw materials for all lithium-ion cells, and the technology still has to improve to make them safer and less expensive. In the same fashion, getting rid of spare tires would only be risk-free if we already had airless tires for sale.

Run-flat tires were an attempt to accelerate that, but they are more expensive, heavier, and less comfortable than the regular ones. Apart from that, if you ever have a puncture in one of them while traveling, you’ll have to throw it in the garbage bin – or all four, if the tire maker stops producing the ones that are in your car. For the time being, I want spare tires back. You should also consider that when you buy your next ride.


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