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Tire may make roadside changes history

Hit the road . . . without a jack?

Or a spare?Sure can, now that two companies are coming out with tires that can run 50 miles at 55 mph even after they go flat.

Michelin North America and the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. say their tires, reaching the market this year and next, eliminate the need for risky, unplanned tire changes along busy highways, in foul weather and in high-crime neighborhoods.

These run-flat tires also would end the danger of high-speed blowouts that can send vehicles out of control.

"This will be a very major product," said Harry Millis, an analyst with Fundamental Research. "The tires are being evaluated by every major auto manufacturer in the world right now."

The tires have rigid sidewalls and special materials that make them stay on the wheel and keep their shape and handling characteristics after they lose air.

In a 1995 J.D. Power study, vehicle owners ranked run-flat tires as their most desired new technology. The American Automobile Association received nearly 3.3 million road service calls for tire problems last year.

"This will appeal to men who are buying tires for their family," said Lee Nauert, manager of tire research for J.D. Power and Associates.

However, there are drawbacks and analysts expect sales to start out slowly.

The tires themselves cost 10 percent to 25 percent more than ordinary tires. In addition, users must install a $350 sensor that tells them when the tires have gone flat.

Millis said they will become more popular when the sensor costs get under $100 and when automakers start using more of the tires as original equipment.

Michelin, the U.S. arm of the French tiremaker, was first to the mass marketplace in June with "zero-pressure" replacement tires for popular car models such as the Honda Accord, Ford Contour, Nissan Altima and General Motors Corp.'s Saturn coupe and sedan.

Michelin has been adding models since. "The interest was even far greater than what we thought," said Michelin marketing manager Steve White.

Goodyear says it will offer "run-flat" tires by mid-1998 that fit 75 percent of vehicles.

The tires will be about 10 percent of Goodyear's replacement market in the first year but could grow to more than 50 percent in three to five years, said Marco Molinari, a sales and marketing vice president at Good-year.

"It will be so big that people will forget about it because it will become the standard," Molinari said.