No More Junk In Your Trunk, Or, The Mystery Of The Disappearing Spare Tire

November 12, 2015

Doctors and nutritionists across the country confirm that Americans are packing on the pounds, but our cars are a very different story.

In an effort to boost fuel economy, automakers are switching to lighter-weight materials, from aluminum to carbon fiber. They're also ditching a lot of equipment that many of us have taken for granted -- and according to AAA, that could leave drivers in the lurch.

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AAA's biggest concern at the moment is the gradual disappearance of spare tires. The organization says that over the past ten model years, some 29 million vehicles have been sold without fifth wheels. Instead, automakers have provided buyers with run-flat tires and tire inflator kits. 

According to AAA, though, neither of those are proper substitutions for a real spare tire (even a smaller-sized "doughnut"). What's more, inflators are expensive, costing motorists up to $300 per use, and they have shorter shelf lives than tires do.

Worst of all, depending on the manner in which a tire's been damaged, an inflator may not even provide a temporary fix. 

As AAA points out, inflators work by coating the inside of a tire with sealant, then re-inflating the tire. They're most effective when a tire is punctured in the tread and the object remains embedded. However, if a tire has been damaged on the sidewall, if the puncturing object is no longer embedded, or if the tire has blown out, an inflator won't be of use. Run-flat tires fail in similar situations.

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AAA's John Nielsen notes, "Consumers may mistakenly believe that inflator kits are a one-size-fits-all alternative to installing a spare tire. 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."


It bears mentioning that it's in AAA's financial interests to keep inflators out of cars. If people are able to repair their own flats with ease, why should they shell out for AAA memberships? Granted, Nielsen says that "we have not seen a decline in tire-related calls over the last five years", but he doesn't say AAA has seen an increase in calls, either.

Whether or not this news is self-serving for AAA, we freely admit that there's never a good time to have a flat tire. Based on a completely unscientific office poll, flat tires are most likely to happen when it's raining, when you're late for a flight, or when you're wearing white.

Then again, waiting hours for roadside assistance is no picnic, either. Even those of us who are lucky enough to carry spares on our vehicles often keep a can of Fix-A-Flat in the trunk, too -- just in case. 

Based on current trends, it seems unlikely that automakers will reverse course anytime soon. More likely, we're going to have to learn to live without spares going forward.

Do you have any horror stories you'd like to share about inflators, run-flat tires, or a missing spare? Or maybe one about roadside assistance? Share them in the comments below. 

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