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August 19, 2014

Five must-follow technological trends

From tread compounds to infotainment systems, these advancements will be commonplace in our industry before you know it

by Kevin Rohlwing

Ziegler Tire & Service in Akron, Ohio, promotes the use of run-flat tires at the sales counter.
Ziegler Tire & Service in Akron, Ohio, promotes the use of run-flat tires at the sales counter.

When Henry Ford decided to produce his famous V8 motor, he chose to build an engine with all eight cylinders cast in one block, and instructed his engineers to produce a design for the engine. The design was placed on paper, but the engineers agreed, to a man, that it was simply impossible to cast an eight-cylinder engine block in one piece. Ford replied, “Produce it anyway.”

Automobile and tire manufacturers have continued to invoke the spirit of Henry Ford since he revolutionized the industry (again) in 1932 with his flathead V8 engine. Like the automobile, Ford didn’t invent the V8 engine, but he found a way to mass produce it and bring a new level of technology to the masses that changed everything. And while Charles Goodyear, Robert William Thompson, John Boyd Dunlop and Arthur William Savage all played vital roles in the invention of the pneumatic tire in the 19th century, it was Édouard Michelin who recognized the genius of Marius Mignol, who revolutionized the tire industry with the Michelin X steel radial tire in 1946.

Advances like the tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS), anti-lock braking system (ABS), electronic stability control (ESC) and supplemental restraint system (SRS) were considered luxury items just a couple of decades ago, but now are standard equipment on all vehicles. To say that technology has changed during my 32-year career in the tire business is an understatement, but the truth is that the next five to 10 years will probably be the most influential in the history of the automobile.

When the editors at Modern Tire Dealer asked me for an article on five new technologies about which every retailer should know, I knew my biggest challenge would be narrowing it down to just five. Trying to predict the next wave of game-changing advances is like filling out a college basketball tournament bracket. There are a few no-brainers most people will immediately recognize as favorites, but the key to success is picking the upsets. So I’ll start with a couple of number one seeds and then finish up with some long shots that may not be on most radar screens.

1. Tread compounds and design

Tires will still be round and black over the next five to 10 years, but the engineering that goes into the rubber compounds and tread designs will be completely different. The push for improved fuel mileage has forced all of the manufacturers to step up their games in the area of low rolling resistance (LRR). Even though I still believe it is unlikely that the average consumer will fully recognize the savings associated with LRR tires, tire companies that compete for original equipment fitments are going to have to do their part to improve corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) and reach the federally mandated target of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

In order to meet that lofty goal, LRR compounds and tread designs will become more common because the automobile manufacturers are going to have to do everything they can to squeeze an extra mile or two per gallon from every vehicle with each new model year. That means the market should be flooded with more LRR tires since every major tire company will need to have at least one model for OE fitments. According to the laws of supply and demand, the prices should at least stabilize since there will be more options to choose from. And it’s not inconceivable to assume all passenger and light truck tires will eventually have some LRR properties as the nation’s automotive fleet moves toward improved fuel efficiency.

In the past, tread design and compounding was considered a compromise of properties because you had to give something up in one area to gain in another. One prevailing theory was that in order to reduce the rolling resistance, the tire would have to sacrifice wet traction. But tire companies have developed special tread rubber compounds that preserve the stopping abilities on wet surfaces while maintaining the LRR benefits. Likewise, tread designs are evolving and both Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Groupe Michelin have, in the recent past, produced perfect examples of how technology is improving performance.

Goodyear broke new ground in the area of advanced tread designs with the Assurance TripleTred All-Season. The tire’s Evolving Traction Grooves are sipes in the tread that actually get wider as the tire wears down. Also, with multiple zones of tread, the shoulder blocks in the dry zone have a different compound than the center rib, which features special polymers for the ice zone.

Michelin recently introduced the Premier A/S with EverGrip technology. The company found a way to mold the grooves in the tires so they widen as the tread wears down, which improves the ability of the tires to evacuate water. Michelin also added high amounts of silica to improve wet traction, and sunflower oil to improve the pliability of the rubber in cold temperatures.

Tire makers will continue to focus on meeting consumer demand for the best performance on all types of road conditions — while helping vehicle manufacturers reach the 54.5 miles per gallon CAFE target. One day, all tires may be all-season tires. And highly fuel efficient.

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