Can zapping improve tire performance?
It is generally accepted that most business and social developments that originate in America eventually find their way to Europe. However, it is interesting to note that one particular innovation within the tire industry was originated in the UK but looks set to make its global debut on the market in the United States.
For the past 18 months I have been tracking the progress of UK-based Tyre Technology which under the expert guidance of Managing Director Stuart Hepworth has been looking to transform the tried, tested and approved concept of “heat cycling tires” from motorsport to ordinary road and high performance cars.
Stuart admits it has been a “roller coaster” journey. Although most agree the idea of heat cycling tires (or zapping, as it is commonly known) could provide improved grip and rolling resistance while also increasing mileage return (mpg), he has found it difficult to take his unique zapping equipment to its final conclusion of being marketed and launched as a successful product and service.
Although the principle of heat cycling has been around for almost 30 years, it was only in 1992 that a pit tire incident at the Australian Grand Prix led to the eventual introduction of “’microwave-power” to preheat race tires (see sidebar). This in turn evolved into the revolutionary patented “Black Frequency” concept enabling the retention and distribution of heat within a tire.
Seven years later this further evolved into the replacement of the microwave method with infrared Black Frequency transmitters, another totally unique concept which apart from pre-heating race tires, also heat cycles them.
Last year, Tyre Technology announced its zapping service on a global basis with most continents interested if not willing to actually endorse the concept immediately.
In the UK the initial interest was very promising with particular enthusiasm coming from the car dealership market which saw the potential for new vehicle sales. However, as Hepworth explained to me, when dealerships proposed the idea to tire manufacturers, it was comprehensively declined with the general comment being that zapping would revoke a tire’s guarantee. And even though Hepworth arranged comprehensive and successful tests at MIRA (Motor Industry Research Association — the internationally acclaimed engineering test facility in the UK), all leading brands remain steadfast in their disapproval.
However, in America there appears to be no such reservations, with the market generally accepting zapping as the way forward for improved performance. The initial breakthrough came when Hoosier Racing Tire Corp., the largest manufacturer of racing tires in the world, began using zapping for its brand.
At the moment Tyre Technology has initially concentrated on the racing track market with the intention of launching into the car sales market in due course. The battle in the UK continues with tire producers still refusing to endorse heat cycling, which Hepworth believes is because it would incur additional costs in the manufacturing process. He admits that the only way zapping is going to become a reality in the UK is by comprehensive testing of the system, therefore proving to the market that the heat cycling of tires really can be the future for tire production.
As in most cases, where there are clouds, a silver lining will appear, and last month Tyre Technology was able to arrange a private testing session at Bruntingthorpe Test Circuit in Leicestershire which was carried out by Top Gear, a magazine and online offshoot of the legendary “Top Gear” television series (which now receives global viewing) that has over 7 million readers.
I was fortunate in being able to attend the test which proved beyond doubt that zapping really can enhance a tire’s performance and safety features. The test results revealed that zapped tires offered between 4% to 5% improved fuel consumption than ordinary tires while one of Top Gear’s leading motoring writers, Oliver Marriage, comments that on a high performance circuit test in a BMW he considered the vehicle to “feel and handle” slightly better.
With such encouraging statistics the next few months are going to be interesting. Not only will these successful tests give food for thought to UK tire manufacturers, but also increasingly underline the confidence that the American market has in zapped tires becoming a reality on road cars in the future. ■
Heat cycling: a happy accident
Heat cycling (or zapping) was initially conceived by accident at the 2002 Australian Grand Prix when a driver accelerated out of the pits after a tire change and immediately spun off at the next corner. An investigation concluded that the crash had been caused through the tires being too cold, even though tire blankets had been used in the pits. It was generally considered that the blankets did not heat through to the core of the tire.
From this incident, development experts looked for an alternative to tire blankets and introduced microwave power to preheat race tires. This swiftly evolved into a revolutionary patented “Black Frequency” concept that enabled the heat to be better retained and distributed.
Then in 2009 the concept was taken to its next stage of development of replacing microwave with unique infrared Black Frequency emitters.
This new concept allowed the system to not only pre-heat racing tires but also to heat cycle them, which made them marginally quicker and provided improved handling, grip, performance, ride comfort, safety and possibly even additional longevity.
How does this translate to street tire use? Stay tuned. At the moment the tire industry is at an impasse on this possible breakthrough in car tire innovation.
John Stone has been working within the global tire industry for the past 20 years. In 1993 he joined Tyres & Accessories magazine in the UK as features editor before joining Tyre Trade News (UK) in 2000 as editor. In 2004 he launched his own company — Sapphire Media Services — as a business media consultant with clients in Singapore, Thailand, India, South Africa, The Netherlands, Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, the UK and Ireland. Stone also has remained working with Tyre Trade News as a freelance columnist and also writes for tire and automotive related publications in South Africa and Asia.
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