The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) Uniform Tire Quality Grade Standards (UTQG) were originated to provide consumers with useful information to help them purchase tires based on their relative treadwear, traction and temperature capabilities. While it is required by law for most passenger car tires sold in the United States, it is not required for deep treaded light truck tires, winter/snow tires, temporary spare tires, trailer tires, tires under 12" in diameter and other select tires.
When looking at UTQG ratings it is important to realize that the Department of Transportation does not conduct the tests. The grades are assigned by the tire manufacturers based on their test results or those conducted by an independent testing company they have hired. The NHTSA has the right to inspect the tire manufacturer's data and can fine them if inconsistencies are found. While most new tire lines have their grades established when they are introduced, they are allowed a 6-month grace period to allow the tire manufacturer to test actual production tires. Once a grade is assigned it must be branded on the tire's upper sidewall and printed on its label.
Unfortunately, the rating that is of the most interest to consumers is the one that appears to be the least consistent. While the Treadwear Grade was originally intended to be assigned purely scientifically, it has also become a marketing tool used by manufacturers to help position and promote their tires.
Maybe it's because tires are so complex and their uses can be so varied, that [UTQG] grades don't always reflect their actual performance in real world use.
UTQG Treadwear Grades are based on actual road use in which the test tire is run in a vehicle convoy along with standardized Course Monitoring Tires. The vehicle repeatedly runs a prescribed 400-miles (643-km) test loop in West Texas for a total of 7200-miles (11,584 km). The vehicle can have its alignment set, air pressure checked and tires rotated every 800-miles (1287 km). The test tire's and the Monitoring Tire's wear are measured during and at the conclusion of the test. The tire manufacturers then assign a Treadwear Grade based on the observed wear rates. The Course Monitoring Tire is assigned a grade and the test tire receives a grade indicating its relative treadwear. A grade of 100 would indicate that the tire tread would last as long as the test tire, 200 would indicate the tread would last twice as long, 300 would indicate three times as long, etc.
The problem with UTQG Treadwear Grades is that they are open to some interpretation on the part of the tire manufacturer because they are assigned after the tire has only experienced a little treadwear as it runs the 7,200 miles (11584 km). This means that the tire manufacturers need to extrapolate their raw wear data when they are assigning Treadwear Grades, and that their grades can to some extent reflect how conservative or optimistic their marketing department is. Typically, comparing the Treadwear Grades of tire lines within a single brand is somewhat helpful, while attempting to compare the grades between different brands is not as helpful.
UTQG Traction Grades are based on the tire's straight line wet coefficient of traction as the tire skids across the specified test surfaces. The UTQG traction test does not evaluate dry braking, dry cornering, wet cornering, or high speed hydroplaning resistance.
The Traction Grade is determined by installing properly inflated test tires on the instrumented axle of a "skid trailer." The skid trailer is pulled behind a truck at a constant 40 mph (64 kmph) over wet asphalt and wet concrete test surfaces. Its brakes are momentarily locked and the axle sensors measure the tire's coefficient of friction (braking g forces) as it slides. Since this test evaluates a sliding tire at a constant 40 mph (64 kmph), it places more emphasis on the tire's tread compound and less emphasis on its tread design.
In 1997, the UTQG Traction Grades were revised to provide a new category of AA for the highest performing tires in addition to the earlier A, B and C grades. Previously the A grade had been the highest available and was awarded to tires that offered wet coefficients of traction above 0.47 g on asphalt and 0.35 g on concrete. Today the grades and their traction coefficients are as follows:
Unfortunately the immediate value of this change to tire buyers will be limited. Use of the AA grade will first be seen on new tires that are introduced after the standard was enacted and will then appear later on tires that have had the required wet traction all along, but were introduced when the single A was the highest available grade.
Temperature (Resistance) Grades
The UTQG Temperature Grade indicates the extent to which heat is generated and/or dissipated by a tire. If the tire is unable to dissipate the heat effectively or if the tire is unable to resist the destructive effects of heat buildup, its ability to run at high speeds is reduced. The grade is established by measuring a loaded tire's ability to operate at high speeds without failure by running an inflated test tire against a large diameter high-speed laboratory test wheel.
Unfortunately for all of the money spent to test, brand and label the tires, the Uniform Tire Quality Grade Standards have not fully met their original goal of clearly informing consumers about the capabilities of their tires. Maybe it's because tires are so complex and their uses can be so varied, that the grades don't always reflect their actual performance in real world use.