U.S. container chassis providers say they aim to have their fleets bias-tire free by 2023.
During the past decade, these operators — namely Direct ChassisLink (DCLI), TRAC Intermodal, FlexiVan and the North American Chassis Pool Cooperative (NACPC) — have spent tens of millions of dollars a year to convert their chassis fleets from bias-ply to radial tires.
“It’s a big-ticket item for us, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Val Noel, chief operating officer for TRAC Intermodal. “It puts a more reliable piece of equipment on the road.”
Bias tires have been around since the start of the automotive industry in the early 1900s. Since the 1980s, however, the trucking industry has shifted to radial tires.
When Ron Joseph joined DCLI from FedEx Ground in 2013, he was surprised to find that most of the country’s container chassis rode on bias tires.
“It was shocking to learn that bias tires still existed,” the DCLI chief operating officer told American Shipper in a telephone interview. “I had assumed the trucking industry got rid of these tires in the 1980s.”
Bias tires consist of multiple, overlapping plies, while radial tires are designed to allow the sidewalls and tread to operate independently of each other, which offers more durability to truck equipment operations.
Although American truckers can still purchase bias tires, they are no longer manufactured in the U.S. and sourced primarily from China. U.S. chassis providers said they source their radial tires mostly from U.S. manufacturers.
Ocean carrier legacy
In the U.S., most container chassis are owned by three leasing companies — DCLI, Flexi-Van Leasing and TRAC Intermodal — or by NACPC, which was formed by a group of 12 motor carriers. These companies acquired the bulk of their chassis when ocean carriers began divesting of these assets during the past decade.
When ocean carriers owned chassis, they considered bias tires less expensive but still a durable option to radial tires for use on marine terminals and short-haul truck moves. Chassis providers have since found that under normal operating conditions three bias tires are replaced per chassis each year versus one radial tire per chassis.
There was also a perception among ocean carriers that some truckers might covertly remove radial tires from chassis in their possession and replace them with the cheaper bias tires.
Greg Moore, FlexiVan’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer, said this concern has been largely dispelled. “We have not seen a sizable theft problem,” he said.
Logistics and labor intensive
Switching out tires on chassis is both a logistics and labor exercise for equipment providers. Tens of thousands of chassis circulate throughout the intermodal network at any given time and each unit has eight to 12 tires depending on the number of axles.
“Wherever we perform maintenance and replace tires, we perform radial conversions,” Moore said. “The greatest challenge is capturing units in the flow.”
FlexiVan started its chassis tire conversion in 2014 and stopped purchasing bias tires altogether in 2016. Moore said the company should have 80% of its chassis on radial tires by the end of next year and 100% by 2023.
Joseph estimates that DCLI has annually converted between 5,000 and 6,000 chassis to radial tires over the past seven years. So far, the company switched to radial tires on more than 60% of its 243,000 marine and intermodal container chassis.
DCLI plans to have its chassis fleet completely outfitted with radial tires by 2023. In some markets, such as Memphis, Tennessee, and the Gulf ports, the radial conversion process will be completed by mid-2021, the company said.
TRAC Intermodal has seven owned service centers, as well as partnerships with numerous third-party vendors, throughout the country to install radial tires on its more than 180,000 container chassis. “We remain bullish on completing the conversion of bias to radial tires,” Noel said.