Five must-follow technological trends
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.
2. Elimination of the spare tire
For decades, motorists have relied on a spare tire when they get a flat. Whether it was a full-size spare or a temporary “donut,” drivers knew that there was an option when there was no air in one of their tires.
In August 2013, the American Automobile Association (AAA) conducted a survey and found there are 145 vehicles that are not equipped with a spare tire. They either have run-flat tires or a temporary mobility kit comprised of a small compressor and sealant. The primary factor behind this trend is eliminating the 30 to 50 pounds that a temporary or full-size spare tire adds to the weight of the vehicle. However, space-saving principles are also at play.
Let’s start with the run-flat option. The knock against this technology has been the stiff ride (and, in the case of Michelin’s PAX system, the limited availability of service options). Traditionally, run-flat tires also were heavier than standard tires, and added weight diminishes fuel economy.
With the introduction of the Drive-Guard line of run-flat tires from Bridgestone, it appears that the next generation of technology has solved some of the old problems. For example, the weight of a 205/50R17 Potenza RE92A is 22 pounds while the DriveGuard in the same size is 26 pounds. If you do the math (four pounds per tire) and factor in an extra 30 pounds for a temporary spare, it’s still a net gain of 14 pounds when the spare is eliminated in favor of DriveGuard run-flats. Bridgestone credits its new NanoPro-Tech rubber insert for the weight savings as well as silica and special rubber polymers for improving the handling in wet conditions. It’s still too early to tell if Drive-Guard will significantly increase the number of run-flats sold, but some of the reviews I have read indicate they are an improvement over the previous generation.
On the other hand, I cannot say the future impact of the inflator/sealant kit looks very bright. To start, the kits are completely ineffective when it comes to larger injuries and leave the motorist without an option in the event of a blowout. It’s also important to recognize that according to some tire manufacturers, the repairability of a tire may come into question after the sealant has been installed. In order to keep liquid sealants from freezing, they usually contain something other than water, so the likelihood of a petro-chemical product like glycol being introduced to the inside of the tire is almost certain. Prolonged exposure to petro-chemicals can damage the innerliner.
Retailers will be faced with a number of different issues regarding their policies for handling these tires. Do you refuse to repair it altogether or simply clean it out and follow standard puncture repair procedures? The tire company will probably recommend replacement, but that’s easy for them to say when they are not standing in front of a customer with a relatively new tire and a simple puncture that was temporarily fixed by the new inflator/sealant “solution.”
At a minimum, the sealant material should be completely removed and the inside of the tire cleaned before attempting a repair.
I predict that the number of vehicles without a spare tire will continue to grow as vehicle manufacturers reduce the curb weight in pursuit of the 54.5 miles per gallon goal for 2025. Only time will tell if advances like DriveGuard technology signal a rebirth of the run-flat market.
But I am certain that the push toward replacing temporary spares with an inflator and sealant will lead to nothing but trouble for the unfortunate small percentage of motorists who get a flat tire. It won’t be a problem for most people, but the unlucky few will be faced with towing bills, tire replacement costs, and a lot of aggravation.
3. Carbon fiber wheels
Even though I should probably save my upset special for number five, I’m going with carbon fiber wheels at three because this is a tire magazine directed toward tire dealers.
The use of carbon fiber as a substitute for metal is taking place in practically every industry, so it makes sense for the wheel business to follow suit. I still remember the early days of aluminum wheels and the theory that they would never take the place of steel. But aluminum became alloy, and the weight savings combined with the improved appearance have made them commonplace on most OE platforms.
As long as that 54.5 miles per gallon target remains in place, car companies will be looking for every ounce of weight they can cut. When alloy wheels are replaced with carbon fiber, the weight savings can be as much as 10 pounds per tire, or 40 pounds per vehicle. It also can reduce the unsprung mass by as much as 40% to 50% and provide significantly more natural damping. As a result, chassis engineers can save another 40 to 60 pounds by using lighter suspension arms.
One study reported that the substitution of carbon fiber wheels alone improves fuel efficiency by up to 4%, while the integrated use at the OEM level results in up to a 6% improvement.
At $15,000 for a set of four, pure carbon fiber wheels are probably a long way from showing up on a typical showroom floor. But the technology is in place for it to start appearing on high-end sports cars in the next few years, and that’s usually how it starts.
Just think back on how the high performance and ultra-high performance tire markets started. These tires were once considered exclusive to the high-end market, but now they are OE on everything from compacts to full-size vehicles.
Carbon fiber wheels are a reach at number 3, but the benefits are impossible to ignore, so I’m sticking with my prediction that this technology will have an impact over the next five to 10 years simply because a tire technician who scratches an alloy rim during a tire change is one thing and scratching a carbon fiber wheel is another when replacement costs are compared between the two.
4. Accident avoidance technology
Since many retailers rely on automotive repair and maintenance for the majority of their profit, keeping up with technology will be a high priority, especially because it is becoming exponentially more complicated.
Despite the agreement that ultimately put Right-to-Repair in the grave, I have very little faith in the vehicle manufacturers sharing all of the information the aftermarket will need to fix the ever-growing number of complex electronic components on tomorrow’s automobiles.
Accident avoidance is a top priority for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the recent final rule regarding rear visibility technology is a perfect example of what retailers can expect.
According to NHTSA: “(the) final rule requires all vehicles under 10,000 pounds, including buses and trucks, manufactured on or after May 1, 2018, to come equipped with rear visibility technology that expands the field of view to enable the driver of a motor vehicle to detect areas behind the vehicle to reduce death and injury resulting from back-over incidents. The field of view must include a 10-foot by 20-foot zone directly behind the vehicle.
“The system must also meet other requirements, including image size, linger time, response time, durability, and deactivation.”
NHTSA also has announced that it is going to be aggressively pursuing vehicle-to-vehicle communications, or V2V, that send out short-range safety signals to determine if an accident is about to occur. Vehicles with V2V technology would alert the driver with beeps when potential hazards like pedestrians or other vehicles entering an intersection are detected. According to NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman, “V2V crash avoidance technology has game-changing potential to significantly reduce the number of crashes, injuries and deaths on our nation’s roads.
“Decades from now, it’s likely we’ll look back at this time period as one in which the historical arc of transportation safety considerably changed for the better.”
NHTSA also announced it may require V2V systems on all cars and light trucks as early as 2017.
As technology like rear visibility and V2V is embraced by OEMs, retailers will need to be able to fix the systems when they inevitably stop functioning. And while I have no idea what that will require, I am all but certain fixing the technology will not be inexpensive.
The regulations only will dictate what they have to do, much like TPMS. So it’s not unreasonable to expect different systems from each manufacturer that require different tools and software to repair or calibrate.
With each new component for accident avoidance, there will be the corresponding need for additional training to maintain and repair this technology.
I predict that the laptop will become the most important tool in the toolbox, so retailers will need technicians who know how to use them.
5. Infotainment systems
Like the different types of accident avoidance technology, the computerization of the dashboard, including Internet access, is going to have a major effect on the automotive aftermarket repair industry. Car makers are taking cues from the smartphone and tablet manufacturers to introduce touchscreen technology that can even display information like traffic and navigation info directly on the windshield in the line of sight for the driver.
The car companies are working with Apple, Google and Samsung to integrate mobile devices and dashboards so they work seamlessly together and actually share information.
As drivers become more dependent on these infotainment systems, they will want them to be fixed when they don’t work. And with each vehicle manufacturer taking a different approach and partnering with a different smartphone or tablet provider, servicing most of these systems will require a trip to the new car dealer if independent retailers don’t arm themselves with the necessary software and training to diagnose and repair the problems.
Tire dealers who give up on this service should keep this in mind: While vehicle owners are at their local car dealerships getting Siri to talk to their dashboards again, they might as well get oil changes, or tire rotations, or windshield wipers. Or more.
Once again, a laptop with the appropriate software will be the only tool that can repair these infotainment systems. And as more and more components become computerized, the new car dealers will have a distinct advantage over the aftermarket.
Technology in the automotive industry is progressing at a pace that would make Ford, Goodyear, Thompson, Dunlop, Savage, Michelin and Mignol beam with pride. Between NHTSA mandates and the never-ending pursuit of gaining a competitive advantage, the tire, wheel and car companies are finding ways to “produce it anyway.”
I’ve always joked that the tire business will be safe as long as the rubber hits the road, but the more I learn about the future of the automobile, the more I worry that flying cars might not be as far off as we think.
Self-driving, self-parking and cars that monitor the health of drivers are just some of the innovations that could become commonplace within the next decade.
I chose these five because I believe they will have the biggest impact on retailers and the industry in the near term. However, it’s only fair that I point out my history picking winners in the college basketball tournament is average at best. ■
Kevin Rohlwing is the Tire Industry Association’s senior vice president of training and a frequent MTD contributor.
For more articles by Kevin Rohlwing, see:
Vehicles without a spare tire: The trade-off? Run-flats, sealants or inflators
According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), hundreds of vehicle makes and models in the last 10 years have been designed without spare tires. Here are some of them that feature run-flat tires (like most BMW models), sealant kits or inflators instead of spare tires.
Spares are optional on the Buick Enclave (2008-2012), Lacrosse (2010-2013), Regal (2013) and Regal Hybrid (2008-2013); BMW X5 (2007-2011) and X6 (2009-2011); Chrysler 300 SRT-8 (2011-2013); Ford Explorer (2011-2012), Focus (2008-2012) and Taurus (2013-2014); GMC Terrain (2010-2012) and Yukon Hybrid (2008-2013); Jaguar F-Type (2014), XF (2009-2012) and XK (2007-2013); Kia Forte (2014), Optima (2013), Optima Hybrid (2011-2013), Rio (2003-2013) and Soul (2010-2013).
Additional vehicle models with an optional spare are the Lincoln MKZ and MKZ Hybrid (2014); Mazda RX8 (2004-2011); Mini (all models); Pontiac G8 (2009); Porsche Cayenne (2003-2013); Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid (2011-2013); and various model-year Volvos, including the C30 (2008-2013), C70 (2006-2013), S80 (2008-2013) and XC70 (2008-2013).
Spare tires are also optional on the Chevrolet Camaro (2010-2013) and Dodge Charger (2006-2013). The Mustang GT Base model (2011-2014) comes with a spare.
TSX wagon only (2012-2013)
A5, S5 and TT (2008-2013)
1M and M3 (all years)
All SRT models with
20 inch wheels
Viper (1998-2010, 2013)
C-Max Engergi (2013)
Focus Electric, Fusion Energi and Hybrid models (2013-2014)
FCX Clarity (all years)
Odyssey Touring (2005-2007)
SLS AMG (2011-2014)
SLR McLaren (2005-2009)
911 and Boxster
Vue Hybrid and Sky
Model S (2013-2014)
Sienna XLE (2004-2013)