Studs on Command - Company Develops High Tech Winter Tire

Studded tires work best on snowy and icy roads across the nation's snowbelt, but highway officials wince at the damage they cause when roads are dry. Promoters of a new type of winter tire believe they've solved the problem with some James Bond-style gadgetry.

Q Tires feature retractable studs that emerge when the driver flicks a switch inside the car. When the snow and ice melt, all it takes is another flip of the switch — and voila — the studs hide back under the treads and the tires are transformed again.

The company's founder, Michael O'Brien, grew up in southern California and probably never gave much thought to winter tires. But then he married and moved to the Midwest, where he soon grew weary of the ritual of putting the chains on his car and taking them off.

O'Brien hatched the retractable studded tire idea and developed a prototype about five years ago. As of March 20, the South Carolina-based company had raised $8.8 million for its startup costs, much of it from individual wealthy investors, said Sean Chariker, the company's marketing director.

The attention-gripping brand name hints James Bond's gadget master, Q, and the spiked tires that gave Bond's Aston Martin extra traction in the 2002 film "Die Another Day."

"It's a product which like so many in this country was invented by someone who said, 'By God, there's got to be a better way,'" said Bruce Starr, a company spokesman.

The company plans to have its newfangled tire, dubbed the Q Celsius, in test markets this summer, to be followed by a broader product rollout by the end of the year.

But before that happens, promoters have been visiting northern states like Maine to make sure their product does not run afoul of state rules and regulations.

The problem is, some northern states have laws that prohibit studded tires between spring and fall. As it's currently written, Maine's law would prohibit even tires with retractable studs during the warmer months. So a Maine lawmaker, Sen. Bill Diamond, submitted a bill that will amend the law.

Diamond couldn't hide his awe with the new product when he presented his bill to allow retractable studded tires year-round on a recent snowy day, describing the tires as "a little bit James Bond-ish."

"It's not the most bizarre bill I've presented," he said, "but it's certainly the most interesting." Diamond's bill quietly rolled through the Legislature and was signed into law Thursday by Gov. John Baldacci.

Laws were passed last year in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Montana, said Starr, who visited Maine's State House to tout Diamond's bill. In New England, neither New Hampshire nor Vermont outlaws studded tires offseason so they are no worry for the company in those states, he said.

Q Tires are installed and balanced just like conventional tires, but a wireless signal is used to activate an air chamber inside the tire that causes the studs to appear. Like conventional tires, they can be repaired with a plug or patch at any tire dealer, the company said.

The company, which has a joint venture to manufacture the tires in China, is not affiliated with any major tire manufacturer. The company said the tires meet federal motor vehicle safety standards.

In their presentation to Maine's Transportation Committee, promoters made no secret that the tires would cost 30 percent more than a comparable winter tire, either with or without studs. But motorists can recoup the extra cost by avoiding the twice-a-year ritual of mounting and un-mounting their snow tires, Starr said.

"Winter tires can be more expensive than the all-season original equipment tire so if you need studded tires, it's an option that you didn't have before," Kevin Rohlwing of the Bowie, Md.-based Tire Industry Association said in an e-mail when asked about the new product.

Q Tires are still relatively unknown within the tire industry. Individuals from several organizations that deal with tire safety, technology and marketing said they had not heard of the company product and listened intently as it was being described.

"As far as I know, there is no other company working on similar technology," said Rohlwing, whose group represents all segments of the tire industry.

Q Tires are designed with two air chambers, one to inflate the tire and a separate one just to apply pressure on the studs when they are deployed.

The tires do lose a small amount of pressure when the studs are retracted, so motorists using the Q Celsius will have to pay closer attention to tire pressure. But Starr said the motorist can retract the studs 30 times before there's a significant loss of pressure in the tire.

In 2007, about 5 million winter tires were shipped in the U.S., and that was figure was expected to grow in 2008, according to Bob Ulrich from Modern Tire Dealer, a trade magazine.

Sales of Q Tires are initially targeted at states that get most of the snow, but eventually Q hopes to market them in all of states, even southern states, for added insurance in the event of ice.