Save That Spare

Bob Rupani Updated: March 27, 2021, 03:00 PM IST

As per a recent notification by our Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, from 1st October 2020, vehicles that fall under the M1 category and weigh less than 3.5 tons and can seat up to 9 people max, shall be allowed to be sold without a spare wheel if they come fitted with tubeless tyres and a tyre pressure monitoring system (TPMS) and are also provided with a tyre puncture repair kit. While I don't have full details of what the puncture repair kit should include, I believe it will need to have a tyre sealant and tyre inflating pump. The Ministry is believed to have said that the space released by doing away with the spare wheel can be used to install batteries for electric vehicles and the tyre pressure monitoring system will also improve fuel efficiency and safety.

These days almost all cars and SUVs in India come fitted with tubeless tyres. In fact tyres with tubes are very rare in new passenger vehicles. While tyre pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) were earlier only found in high end premium vehicles, now many manufacturers also offer them in middle segment ones. Some premium vehicles also come with sophisticated and expensive run flat tyres that are tubeless too. But strangely the notification from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways is silent about run flats. As for puncture repair kits, they are easily available in the aftermarket. So there is nothing really new about all these features. But what I find quite shocking is the decision to totally eliminate the spare wheel. While I appreciate the reasoning behind it, and the need to generate space to store batteries in EVs, I certainly do not agree with the decision to do away with the spare or stepney as it's known in India. I actually have half a mind to start a 'Save the Spare' movement. Let me explain why.

1) Our roads and highways are yet far from perfect. Some national highways have surely improved, but they are still short of European, or advanced Western country standards. And though tyre technology and their durability may also have improved, punctures or flat tyres are still commonplace in India. While I agree that tubeless tyres are easier to repair than those with tubes, doing this by the side of the road, requires some mechanical skills that many motorists might not have. In comparison fitting the spare wheel is far easier.

2) One of the big advantages of tubeless tyres is that they don't suddenly blowout like tyres with tubes. Even if they suffer a cut or a puncture, the air escapes slower than it does in a tyre with a tube. Sometimes the escaping or leaking of air is so slow, that it is known as a 'slow puncture', with which you can drive for several days. The disadvantage of this is that quite often you cannot detect that the tyre is losing air and may end up driving it with very little or no inflation, which can damage a tyre to the extent that it is beyond repair. You will then be stuck without a spare and with a tyre that cannot be repaired. Of course, it can be argued that the TPMS which is compulsory in case a spare is not provided will give a warning of low air pressure. I have a counter to that.

3) While the TPMS is undoubtedly a very useful feature, it is not foolproof and in a country like ours, there are certain practical difficulties that can compromise its performance. Direct TPMS, which is more common, uses an individual battery powered sensor fitted in each wheel. It is normally attached to the tyre valve and conveys the air pressure level to a central unit or display. On our less than perfect roads, these sensors take a lot of beating and very heavy impacts can sometimes lead to errors in readings. Valve caps are also quite uncommon on many of our vehicles. You will of course see them on brand new vehicles, but after a while they get whacked and are never replaced. Or when you go to fill air the attendant at the fuel station removes them and then conveniently forgets to put them back on. And honestly, most owners don't ever notice they are missing. This can lead to corrosion and malfunction of the sensor. Another thing one needs to bear in mind is that air expands with heat. So a cold tyre can show low air pressure and then as it heats up, the air expands and pressure becomes normal. So while a TPMS is a useful tool, it's not infallible. In my view, a visual inspection and checking the inflation with a good tyre pressure gauge are still the best way of determining correct air pressure. As a matter of fact, I have had so many false alerts of low tyre pressure with some TPMS's, that I honestly would not put my 100 percent faith in them.

Now that leaves us with run flat tyres. Many of these are designed to keep going despite a puncture for at least 80 kilometers, at a max speed of up to 80 kmph. This distance is supposed to be enough to get one home or to a service centre. Some manufacturers claim a longer range of course. But in my experience on our roads and with our driving conditions, there is a substantial reduction in claimed range. One other very important thing is that the jury is still out on the repair of run flat tyres. Many do repair them and say it's absolutely fine to do so. But there are tyre manufacturers, who also say, that if a tyre has been run with severe under inflation or zero inflation, the damage caused by this is not noticeable. So if such a tyre is repaired, it could suffer a dangerous failure at high speed. Given this many owners simply end up replacing their run flats and even the wealthiest ones are not happy doing so, as this is costly and what many believe an unnecessary expense.

I must admit that an EV with a limited range and without a spare wheel may be fine, as it's likely to be used for short journeys only in urban areas and cities. But if like me you are addicted to the open road and enjoy long distance driving and journeys, in my view a spare wheel, and a full size one at that is a mandatory requirement. I would certainly not venture far without one as a companion. There was a time when people put advertisements for selling cars in the classified sections of newspapers and you often came across the statement "with unused stepney (spare wheel)". This would be the USP of this used car. I hope in a similar manner, many manufacturers continue to provide spare wheels, and advertise their vehicles as those that come with the additional security of a spare wheel.

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New SUV without a spare wheel. Would you buy one?