About Treadwell: Q&A with Dr. John Baldwin

By: Discount Tire

To give you a better understanding of what Treadwell is (and how it can help you find the right tires for your needs) we sat down with one of its creators—our very own Dr. John Baldwin.

 A 20-year veteran of the tire industry, Dr. Baldwin is at the forefront of the research, development and testing processes that make Treadwell a valuable resource for consumers, our in-store personnel, as well as for the tire manufacturers themselves.

What is Treadwell?

“Treadwell is a tool that makes the tire-buying experience for the customer more authentic, because it’s based on actual real-world test results. Mileages that our customers get on vehicles driving around their neighborhoods, blended with actual objective and subjective test driver data—even data we obtain from winter testing in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.”

“The (Treadwell) algorithm then uses that information and data combined with your local weather, your driving priorities and the vehicle you drive to give you a hyper-localized recommendation for the tire that will work best on your vehicle.”

What does Treadwell mean to you?

“One of the things we’ve been wondering is whether we can get actual test data on tires. We’ve been trying to evaluate new tires as they come in, as well as ways to use real test data rather than the marketing blurbs that are put out by the tire companies. So to see Treadwell launched in our stores and online is quite gratifying.”

How does Treadwell work?

"Treadwell works a couple different ways. From the back end it takes our testing data and then combines your inputs as a customer (or when our store employees are making recommendations) and puts all of this info into an algorithm. What the algorithm then does is weigh the priorities of the customer and comes out with the best answer."

"Now there are a lot of boring details of the algorithm that we’re not going to get into, but it definitely takes into account the driver’s preferences and also the test data."

“In no way, shape or form does it account for brand, what the tire costs, or how much money we make on the tire. It is strictly the data about the tire.”

How does Treadwell get “smarter” the more it’s used?

“In a couple different ways. Treadwell itself will get smarter based on use cases and attribute submissions and then also as the tool is used on the back end; the more data we put into it, the better the recommendations get.”

How does weather impact Treadwell results?

“Dramatically. And you don’t have to take my word for it. If you’re using Treadwell you can enter your area, your ZIP code, your vehicle, your preferences and then get your recommendations. If you put in Washington state, Minnesota, or Florida you can see the dramatic differences in ranking that can occur by either having a lot of rain or a lot of rain and snow or even just cold weather. It really does effect the rank order.

“This isn’t some rigged setup that’s always going to recommend the same three tires no matter what. Sometimes that does happen when you have three tires that are better than the rest, but in many cases a tire that’s really good in Arizona isn’t necessarily that good in the snow for Minnesota.”

How does Treadwell make things easier for our customers?

“When I first came to Discount Tire I was a tire guy, but more of a behind the scenes kind of tire guy. I had worked at Ford Motor Company and we bought very specific tires there. Looking at specific sizes in the current world you look at a 205/55R16 and you realize there are 40 choices out there and they cost between $40 – $150. It can get kind of overwhelming to understand the differences and, most people don’t even realize what they are.”

“If you don’t think about tires very much, you might not know tires come in different sizes or let alone do different things. So what Treadwell can do is help narrow that very complicated field down and truly answer ‘what is the best set of tires for my vehicle?’”

How does Treadwell help our employees?

“Take the customer experience and multiply that by a thousand. So now I’ve got all these tires that I’m the expert on, in this particular case Treadwell gives an unbiased opinion that helps our store employees too. What we’ve heard from our store employees as they’ve interacted with it is that they’ve learned more about tires as well.”

Who is Treadwell for?

“When you think of Treadwell, we’re targeting the customer that is a casual tire shopper or new to the experience of buying tires. Someone who’s really not used to going to websites and entering the year/make/model of their vehicle. Maybe they don’t even know their vehicle trim level.”

“People that don’t understand that there are 20-30 major brands of tires and all these different types of attributes that you have to look at and value.”

“So it’s really for the majority of our customers.”

Who isn’t Treadwell for?

“If you’re a very enthusiastic off-roader or you track your vehicle on the weekends (or you’re buying trailer tires) this particular tool isn’t as helpful for you. You probably already know more than Treadwell, quite frankly.”

How does Treadwell provide objective truth versus subjective info?

“If you think about it, we’re not using reviews. That’s an important aspect of this. It’s not important in the ranking of Treadwell where customer reviews are in the overall ranking of Treadwell results. On the other hand, that’s not to say that customer reviews don’t have an important say in how customers choose tires. We show and give access to reviews, but it’s not factored into the algorithm.

“But we do understand the value of reviews. You could imagine an enhancement to Treadwell where as we get better reviews where maybe that’s weighted not so much in the algorithm but that we show that customers get a vote too that’s balanced between the objective data and the subjective data of Treadwell.”

What is the Treadwell testing methodology?

“Treadwell only uses tires that are industrialized. What that means is that in the beginning, tires are prototypes. Sometimes they (tire manufacturers) only make five to ten out of a special mold. But we like to use the tires that are going to be sold to our customers. So we wait a little closer to launch when there’s a warehouse full of these tires that are shipping out to our stores. We’ll grab a size that’s representative of the entire line and then we test that tire.

We have several tests that we run at the same time. Say it’s wintertime. We’ll send a single tire up to Smithers for winter testing, we’ll take a set of tires down to Texas Test Fleet in Devine, Texas.

“What they do is run vehicles a thousand miles a day, two shifts of 500 miles, where they drive a very specific course through the streets of San Antonio out to the hill country on the highway, and they do the same type of route every day driven by drivers that drive the same way every day. We’ll use that against a control tire that we’ve got a lot of real-world data on from our customers thanks to all of the treadwear measurements our stores take, and we can get an idea of how that tire will actually wear before it launches. That’s the hardest thing to predict, is what the wear is going to be.”

“On top of that our driver is testing down in Pearsall, Texas over at Cooper’s vehicle test center. What we do there are a series of noise maneuvers on different surfaces where he’ll feel for different inputs into the vehicle if it sets off any vibrations. He’ll look at the wet handling, the wet stopping, what we call “highway handling” where basically one drives straight and then puts slow inputs into the tire and you can feel how the tire moves; if there’s a lag or if it drives straight. There are a lot of subtle inputs that get ranked into the subjective testing.”

“In our objective testing, each driver has something called a V-box, which is a GPS-based test kit that measures vehicle speed, where it’s at on the course, and then from a stopping distance perspective. Stopping distances we measure from 60 mph down to zero and how many feet it took to stop. We do that in the dry and the wet, five to ten times again and again to get the average and variability for the stopping distances you see on Treadwell.

How is our testing different than our competitors’? 

“In many respects similar methods are used. They get a driver, they get on a testing track, they measure stopping distances. The real differentiator isn’t so much the testing as it is the mileage we get from actual drivers coming in to get rotations at our stores.”

“So if someone bought a set of four tires, we track them. That is really very difficult for the tire manufacturers to get, and we have enough scale where we can get that data in a hurry. It’s a true important differentiator between Treadwell and our competitors. Most of our competitors either have to go off the tire warranty or a customer review might post something saying ‘this is the mileage I got out of these tires’ which may or may not be what they really got, because it’s hard to say whether they’re really tracking it that closely.

Do we share Treadwell results with the tire manufacturers?

“Absolutely. As a matter of fact, that’s one of the ways we hold tire manufacturers accountable. It’s not an unusual week to have one of the tire manufacturers in when we’re discussing their mileage performance on Treadwell versus what their warranty is.”

“We expect that when a tire manufacturer gives us a mileage warranty, they’ll achieve the median of Treadwell. We give a little leeway, but when it misses by 10% or more we have very let’s say pointedconversations with the manufacturers about improving their tires.”

Are we in contact with the manufacturers as we test their tires?

“Yes. It’s important that we both get it right, because it’s difficult to make a change to a tire after it has already launched.”

How is Treadwell making a difference in the industry?

“What we’re finding is that our approach to testing, the algorithm, and especially the use of mileage accumulation info, we’ve essentially become what I would call a de-facto standard that other tire manufacturers and retailers look at and use to understand their own data. They trust our data as well, and that’s an important aspect. We’ve even had a tire retailer ask us if they could use Treadwell!”

“It’s not a small accomplishment to be recognized by your competitors and your suppliers as having a tool that is truly objective.”

How long did Treadwell take to develop?

“About three years.”

How much money have we spent on Treadwell?

“The reality is that it’s been millions. The testing is quite expensive, with a lot of man-hours for development, and there are a lot of people that train to it. It’s quite an investment by the company, essentially just to guide our customers and employees to be empowered to make the right decisions for their own wants and needs.”

What future innovations are in store for Treadwell? 

“Outside of reviews, we have what’s called in the industry an “adjustment program” (but most customers know that as a warranty program). So most tires have a warranty, but we run and take care of so many other warranty claims than any other retailer on the planet put together. If you think about it, we’ve got this wealth of information on what people like and don’t like about tires in terms of how they hold together from a durability perspective, whether they’re getting ozone cracking, various attributes and problems that occur with a tire. We track all that. So we can have the Treadwell algorithm look at the objective life of the tire versus just the mileage. “

“On top of that we’re also looking at including in the not too distant future what we’re calling “worn tire testing.” Wouldn’t it be great if we could get some actual insight and maybe weigh and show how well your tires should perform over their entire life down to 4/32” of wear?”

“Other enhancements to Treadwell we’re looking at include testing and data on heavy duty light truck tires. Newer light trucks have a lot of torque. We see a lot faster wear on those types of tires, so we’ll segregate those out.

Electric vehicles are a big deal from a tire wear perspective, as well as a battery range perspective. Rolling resistance will matter for that. You can imagine ultra-high-performance testing, where we test more aggressive handling. Mud terrain tires and how they do off road.

“These customers, while there might not be a lot of them, are super enthusiastic about those attributes and we have the ability to test these going forward.”

When will they be incorporated?

“Within the next year you’re going to see at least one of these enhancements.”