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The Trials of Installing Winter Tires with Tire-Pressure Sensors

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Leaves are falling from the trees and taking over your lawn, Christmas commercials are trickling onto the TV, and if you live in a part of the country where the thermometer hardly ever tips above 45 degrees this time of year, you really must fit proper winter tires to your front-, rear-, or all-wheel-drive vehicle for maximum safety and performance. But swapping wheels and tires twice a year, and then dealing with storage of the off-season set is a pain. What's worse, you will also have to deal with the frustrations of tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS).

Blame Ford or blame Firestone -- or just blame all those less-than-attentive Explorer owners of the 1990s. Either way, TPMS became mandatory on all light-duty vehicles sold after September 2007. They add a welcomed safety net, but they also create extra work and cost to those smart people running a dedicated winter wheel and tire package. Much of this frustration comes along with the more common, active monitoring systems that feature sensors mounted to the wheels. But the issue isn't that TPMS exist; it's the integration of the systems into vehicles. Some automakers get it right while others seem to complicate TPMS for the sake of complication.

It shouldn't be a surprise given their rich winter tire culture that the Germans tend to get TPMS right. Porsche has the best system in the business. Its groundbreaking 959 -- launched in 1986 -- was the first production vehicle featuring a TPMS. With Porsche's latest system, all is quickly configured in the instrument cluster using the steering wheel buttons or a stalk on the column. Select your wheel size, the type of tire you've fitted to those wheels (summer, winter, or all-season), the load setting (partial or full load), and the display tells you exactly where to set the air pressure for each tire. Drive the car or SUV around the block while the system learns the new monitors, and you're good to go, with the tire pressures set exactly as developed and tested by Porsche engineers for that specific set of wheels and tires. Very slick.

It's not even close with most Japanese brands, including Toyota/Lexus and Nissan/Infiniti. Your only mainstream option is to visit the dealer or a properly equipped tire store for the TPMS pairing procedure after each seasonal wheel swap. Or you can buy an ATEQ QuickSet TPMS Reset Tool for $150. It plugs into your car's OBD2 port and can load the TPMS sensor codes for two sets of wheels. I recently used this tool on a 2015 Toyota 4Runner and discovered it's not user friendly for the average owner. It only worked for me after a phone call to ATEQ and some software and driver updates.

A slicker alternative is to remove the original tire pressure monitors from the stock wheels and stash all four in the trunk inside a pressurized PVC tube, therefore tricking your car or truck into thinking the four sensors are reading above minimum pressure, though I don't think this is quite what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had in mind with its TPMS mandate.

Most American automakers dance between the Germans and the Japanese brands. Typically, General Motors monitoring systems work fine, though they're rather fiddly. You need to put the TMPS into a relearn mode and then lower the air pressure of each tire in a specific order as you wait for the horn to honk, confirming that each sensor is married to the system. Then top off the tire pressures to the recommended settings.

Ford has a similar setup, but the procedure for putting the TPMS into the learning mode is like the complicated Konami code for unlimited lives on an old Nintendo system. A small, $50 remote triggers each TPMS sensor to pair to the car. My luck with most Ford vehicles is hit or miss, and half the time it calls for a dealer visit even when I follow directions to the letter.

Why not just live with the blinking TPMS light or simply place a piece of electrical tape over it? If you're not OCD like me and can live with a TPMS light constantly shining in your face, go for it. Just keep in mind that it takes away a level of safety, and it's also illegal in at least four states: Hawaii, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia. You can't pass inspection there with a TPMS fault.

Meanwhile, Audi leads the TPMS pack by rewinding the clock. Indirect systems became popular on vehicles with run-flat tires about 10 years ago. Instead of having a TPMS sensor on each wheel, the vehicle compared the rotation of the tires relative to each other via the wheel speed sensors. An underinflated tire has a smaller diameter; therefore, it spins faster. The early systems weren't very accurate and would occasionally register a fault even when there was no low tire, or they failed to alert drivers when all four tires were equally low on pressure. Newer indirect systems that Audi and a few others use take advantage of improvements in wheel-speed sensor technology. They can now measure each corner individually and alert the driver of low tire pressure earlier and more accurately. These systems cost the automaker -- and ultimately the consumer -- less, and owners don't need TPMS sensors installed on either their winter or summer wheel setups.

The disadvantage is the inability to display the actual live tire pressures.

I've dealt with far too many monitoring systems on far too many vehicles, and so I have strong feelings on how I think they should progress moving forward. The biggest improvement would be consistency among automakers. There are too many different types of systems with unique reset and pairing procedures, as well as sensor types and frequencies. Tire pressure monitoring systems cause headaches for owners, and they're a mindboggling, costly pain for tire shops.

"It's a large investment in shop efficiency and economics to support TPMS for a customer base like ours, who bring in many different types of vehicles," says Chris Backus, owner of RHD Tire in Grand Rapids and Ferndale, Michigan. "TPMS sensors are a profit center for our business, but a profit center I don't particularly like because telling a customer the car needs a new sensor may create skepticism in the customer's mind. We really need to see consistency in the industry as far as system design."

Here is what I propose to fix the madness: Most automakers should follow Audi's lead and fit the latest indirect TPMS. Most drivers don't need to view live tire pressures on the instrument panel and really only need to know when a tire is running low on air. Engineers for the high-end automakers should test drive a Porsche and play around with its TMPS. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, just copy the system. The change might put over-the-counter drug makers out of business as pain reliever sales drop, but surely these engineers have bosses who own cars, and they'd all welcome the much-needed change in the long term.