Kevlar wheel liners aren't as durable as snow chains, but they grip well and are easier to deploy
A textile alternative to snow chains seems destined to be a feature on cars visiting the mountains this ski season.
Quick and easy to fit, and costing round $300, the so-called AutoSock is an impressive product at first glance, albeit within some limitations.
The system works on cars, 4X4 vehicles and even trucks and — just as with steel snow chains — you use it at slow speeds (30kp/h to 50kp/h).
The AutoSock system was designed for use in snow and ice — not dry tarmac or gravel — initially being deployed on cars over sealed alpine passes in Europe.
Anyone who mistakenly runs AutoSocks over rough metal roads could shred them, though a limited “misuse” tolerace is said to be built in.
Endorsed by major European car manufacturers, the product has made steady gains since being introduced in New Zealand about five years ago.
It is recogised by the NZ Transport Agency as a “temporary gripping device”.
I heard about AutoSocks from Visit Ruapehu general manager Mike Smith, who mentioned they had impressed staff at Turoa Ski Area.
Inquiries with the importer, Wurth NZ Ltd, revealed the Norwegian-design is now being used right across snow and ice prone areas of the country.
Significantly, users include those responsible for closing snowy roads (Greymouth-based Fulton Hogan managers, who ply Arthur’s Pass on their way to Christchurch) and those who assist snow and ice-stricken motorists (Reefton police).
The product consists of self-centreing (kevlar-type) liners, in most cases solely applied to the front wheels. Only if you have a rear-wheel-drive car are you instructed to fit AutoSocks both front-and-rear.
As for 4X4s, these can apparently get away with using the product on front-driven wheels only, though more ideally they should be fitted all-round.
The AutoSock can be fitted in a couple of minutes, albeit in a two-stage process.
You pull the sock over most of the wheel, then roll the wheels forward half-a-metre to complete the fitting.
The AutoSock works on the same principle as that employed by hikers, who sometimes pull socks over tramping boots to help the traverse snow and ice.
The priciple is that a layer of fibre affords infinitely greater grip (in snow and ice), than naked rubber does.
Wurth says AutoSocks improve vehicle traction on any snow or ice — even in soft, deep snow, or wet snow. There’s many a video of Youtube that appears to back up this ascertion.
“It is recommended that you take AutoSocks off when you get back on tarmac, although the reality is that they will be drive on tarmac during those intermittent tarmac/snow/tarmac journeys,” says the company.
Testing included being driven at 50 kp/h across 50 kilometres of dry tarmac. And engineers say the product passed this “misuse test”.
“But tarmac driving increases fabric wear and reduced service life considerably”.
The main advantage over steel chains seems to be ease of fitting.
But while the total overall life of AutoSocks may not be as long as that of steel chain, that’s unlikely to deter casual users.
I'll bet that many a city-based skier will be happy to slip a pack under their front seat, for use during a possible future emergency.
Wurth NZ Ltd auto regional manager Olly McPherson maintains there’s no reason why AutoSocks shouldn't provide satisfactory wear — if used as recommended.
An important tip, he says, is before fitting engage traction control -- to avoid wear-increasing wheel-spins.
But tricky as fitting steel snow chains may be for some users, these do have an advantage.
With all that potentially destructive clatter, there’s zero chance of forgetting you have steel chains on your wheels after leaving the snow behind!