The Future of LT Tires: OE Specifications are Expanding

Nov. 18, 2020
Fuel efficiency and a quiet, comfortable ride might not be the first things that come to mind when thinking about light truck tires. But the tiremakers designing original equipment LT tires indicate those are key considerations at work in the next generation of products.

And if those factors are driving OE today, those same trends will drive the replacement tire market in the years to come.

A growing focus on rolling resistance and handling doesn’t mean load indexes and durability aren’t important anymore. Those characteristics remain critical. Just as consumers in the passenger tire market expect all-around performance, original equipment manufacturers are demanding LT tires that do it all.

Bridgestone says the Jeep Wrangler Willys is the precise kind of vehicle it had in mind when designing the Firestone Destination M/T2. The tire is OE on the 2020 model, and Bridgestone says it offers off-road traction, plus comfortable on-road manners.

As Drew Howlett, product manager for Falken’s light truck, SUV and CUV tires at Sumitomo Rubber North America Inc., says, “Tire design is always a compromise.”

To get a glimpse of the future of LT tires, we turned to the experts designing tires for the OEMs. (We reached out to tire manufacturers that currently have LT fitments at the OE level.)

And for the sake of clarity, we’re not talking about p-metric tires on light trucks. We’re focusing on true LT tires, such as the most popular size, LT245/75R16, or 35x12.50R20LT, which nearly cracked the top 10 in replacement LT sizes last year.

MTD: What overarching trends do you see in OEM specs you’re working on now? How is that affecting the LT tires you produce for those vehicles?

Will Robbins, senior product manager at Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations LLC: Performance characteristics often vary from vehicle to vehicle, but there are several trends we see across the board with automakers. Most OEMs are seeking tire solutions that deliver enhanced fuel efficiency and excellent noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) performance. This is in addition to traditional performance characteristics, such as wet and dry traction, secure braking, and all-season capability in markets like the U.S. and Canada. All of these characteristics are foundational requirements, and many times we are partnering with the OEM early in the process to go beyond these requirements to deliver added value and differentiation.

We have seen these trends extend into the light truck segment, especially as Class 2 and Class 3 trucks become more premium and OEMs look to alternative powertrain options that come with increased load requirements that light truck products can provide.

Original equipment manufacturers are asking for more aggressive sidewall designs, Hankook says, like those available on the Dynapro MT2.

Eric Shirley, director of North American OE sales at Hankook Tire America Corp.: The most notable performance requirements of recent car makers are NVH and on and off-road performance. NVH performance is an item that needs to be continuously improved in the future due to the trend of expanding electric vehicles. On and off-road performance is the most basic performance needed for pick-up trucks. In particular, for on and off-road tires, almost all car makers want an aggressive-looking tire. We are also seeing an upward trend in the amount of electric vehicle (EV) tires requested by vehicle manufacturers, which requires performance factors such as excellent rolling resistance and improved fuel economy, in addition to low noise.

Chris Han, marketing manager at Kumho Tire USA Inc.: We’re seeing more F Load Range fitments on newer model vehicles and due to that, we are adding sizes to our current product lines with the new spec and also considering this trend with future product developments.

Brandon Sturgis, product manager at BFGoodrich Tires, Michelin North America Inc.: We’re seeing tires trend larger for LT sizes, especially when addressing EV applications due to the heavy size of the vehicles and weight of the batteries. In addition to styling, there is a need for increased load capacity for these applications. For larger EV vehicles in LT metric, there is also a need for lower rolling resistance to meet regulatory requirements. This must be balanced with off-road aggressiveness. 

For years, LT metric was for heavy duty trucks, but we’re increasingly seeing OEMs putting them on light trucks. One example is the BFGoodrich All-Terrain KO2 tire as a fitment on the new Ford Bronco Badlands trim, the Ford Raptor and the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.

Nexen reports it developed the Roadian AT Pro in size LT275/70R18 for the Ram 2500 and 3500.

Aaron Neumann, product development manager at Nexen Tire America Inc.’s tech center: We continue to see a strong push to reduce rolling resistance, which helps vehicle fuel efficiency.  Additionally, pick-up trucks have become much more refined over the years, so there is a strong emphasis on ride comfort and low noise. We are seeing more requests for tires that look aggressive, but have a quieter tread pattern. That is tricky from an engineering point of view. Overall, though, the OEMs are still focused on delivering tires on their trucks with a good balance of performance, all around.

Howlett, Sumitomo: Due to automobile manufacturers having to meet the needs of end consumers, dealers should expect more and more variations of the same tire size. We’ll explain.

Prior to our AT3W OE fitment, Falken offered a LT285/70R17 LRE (Load Index 121), intended for three-quarter-ton pickup trucks, and a P285/70R17 (Load Index 117), intended for lighter, often modified vehicles such as half-ton pickups, Jeeps and Toyotas. Although the P-metric AT3W was more than adequate for the majority of customers from a load carrying capacity and durability perspective, end consumers - and therefore OEMs - prefer the “LT” in this tire size. This is a common theme, often causing tire manufacturers to create multiple specifications in terms of load range and load index within a given tire size. Distributors already have enough complexity carrying multiple brands, categories and price points within a given tire size, so stocking a Load Range C in addition to a Load Range E from the same exact product line can definitely be overwhelming. It can be frustrating, too, especially when the LRE technically covers the entire vehicle market. However, with OE fitments like our Load Range C Jeep Gladiator Rubicon fitment, customers often, understandably,  ask for the same load range as OE in fear of a harsher ride or an “over-built” tire.

MTD: In terms of tire construction and technology, what should dealers expect to see trickle into the replacement LT tire market?

Robbins, Bridgestone: The industry has seen a significant push for utilizing advances in technology to reduce trade-offs and compromises in the passenger segment over the last decade. We expect to see a similar focus begin to emerge in the light truck segment, especially as newer, heavier, more capable vehicles are increasingly adopted by drivers as their primary vehicle instead of a more utilitarian vehicle.

As we have implemented with our Bridgestone Dueler H/T 685 and Firestone Destination X/T product lines, we expect to see increased adoption of limited mileage warranties which provide a very visible selling feature for dealers. We also expect to see a focus on developing compounds that can deliver the durability that drivers require in light truck products, while offering improvements in wet traction and winter performance.

Shirley, Hankook: In order to secure NVH and on and off-road performance, there are inevitable trade-offs, such as wear or snow traction. Trade-off performances differ according to the design method (pattern, profile, compound, etc.) of each tire manufacturer, and the response to the replacement market must be determined according to which performance is degraded.

Kumho has been an OE supplier for the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van for many years, most recently the Crugen HT51 in size LT245/75R16.

Han, Kumho: I expect to see the emergence of more electric vehicles in the light truck vehicle segment. This will require the LT tires developed for this vehicle segment to have higher grip capabilities due to the increase in torque levels. New, innovative performance enhancements will have to be made to address uneven wear patterns and ensure durability that can be negatively impacted by wheel slip and heavier loads. Noise levels will also have to be addressed during the development process for tires to align with the electric vehicles.

The Michelin Agilis CrossClimate is designed for three-quarter and one-ton pickup trucks and vans. It entered the replacement market last year with 16 LT tire sizes.

Sturgis, Michelin: One trend we’re seeing is more black sidewall and less white letter sidewalls. A lot of OE fitments do not have white letter sidewalls and this trickles down into consumer preference when replacing tires.

Neumann, Nexen: We are using more silica in our truck tread compounds and this is a trickle down technology from OE. Silica delivers a better balance of wet grip and low rolling resistance.  We combine this with natural rubber to increase the toughness and tear strength of our LT tread compounds. The trend towards more aggressive-looking tires that are also quiet will also filter into the replacement market. In some cases, this will mean tough-looking sidewalls and shoulders and more conservative looking tread patterns. But we can also achieve aggressive tread patterns that don’t make a lot of tread noise with clever engineering and attention to detail.

Howlett, Sumitomo: When an OE customer requests an “LT” tire, manufacturers must meet both regulatory and internal requirements in order to build a quality tire. While the regulatory test conditions are mostly the same between passenger car tires and light truck tires for a given load index, the inflation pressure specified by federal regulation NHTSA-DOT 571.139 is higher for LT tires vs. passenger tires for plunger, bead unseat, endurance, high speed and low-pressure endurance testing. So even if an LT tire and a non-LT tire both possess a Load Index of 116, the LT tire must demonstrate higher levels of strength, endurance and durability. 

In addition to these federal regulations, tire manufacturers have stringent internal requirements of their own. We know LT tires are more likely to be used in strenuous conditions, which is why we and other manufacturers take steps to ensure the tire is built to handle more than its P-metric counterpart. Inner liners are thicker in LT tires to prevent air permeation at higher pressures, different belt packages are used to withstand higher breaker energy test requirements and bead areas are often designed more robustly. All of these design changes result in a more robust tire for the OEM, but tire design is always a compromise. These changes can negatively affect a tire’s weight and rolling resistance, which is why it’s crucial that automakers and tire manufacturers work together to construct the best tire for the intended application. Optimizing tire durability, ride quality, braking performance and fuel economy is a tall task, but it’s one that must be accomplished, no questions asked. 

In summary, OEMs are asking for more and more LT tire options for their various vehicle trims. Because LT tires must meet more demanding testing requirements while also providing drivers with a smooth, economically efficient ride, tire manufacturers are working hard to produce capable light truck tires in a variety of load indexes and sizes. Therefore, rest assured knowing that you shouldn’t have an issue getting your customers on a set of light truck tires that’s perfect for them.

Todd Bergeson, senior manager of light trucks at Toyo Tire U.S.A. Corp.: As it pertains to construction and technology, the trend to install all-terrain patterns as OE continues to grow in popularity among truck manufacturers. It is not always the case, but several tire manufacturers, including Toyo, have adopted the severe winter traction as a key performance feature. The advantage of attaining the winter performance required to earn the 3-Peak Mountain Snowflake (certification) is that an all-terrain tire becomes a true all-weather tire. This is important because work and adventure don’t take a break just because it gets cold and snowy out.

Bob Abram, senior manager of product planning for Yokohama Tire Corp.: Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirements all but ensure that more fuel efficienct technologies will continue to creep into the OE offerings in all segments. Also, an increasing number of LT-metric all-terrain tires are fitted as OE. In 2020, around 50% more full-size trucks are spec’d with LT-metric A/Ts than in 2015. As you can imagine, the majority of these OE offerings are not the most aggressive all-terrains on the market, which makes upgrading an important market consideration. That’s one of the reasons why Yokohama now offers two A/T tires, our Geolandar A/T G015 and Geolandar A/T G9015,  for the market.

MTD: What’s happening with OE LT tire sizes?

Robbins, Bridgestone: Propagation of new sizing into the LT space hasn’t been quite as significant as it has been with passenger tires in the CUV/SUV/truck space, but it is increasing.

Historically, the LT market was served by 15 to 20 primary sizes that covered a significant number of fitments, based mostly on a utilitarian need to carry higher loads. We see the sizing shift primarily in rim diameter where the industry has moved from mostly 16- and 17-inch fitments to a growing number of 18- and 20-inch fitments. This change comes as OEMs look to offer the same aesthetics on LT fitments that they have been offering on passenger sizes for a number of years.

Shirley, Hankook: Section width is likely to be increased and OE makers are requesting more aggressive sidewall designs, such as our RT05 (Dynapro MT2).

Han, Kumho: OE LT tires are shifting towards higher load ranges with higher carrying capacity at higher inflation pressure. Vehicles now have increased towing capacity and payload, so the tires have to meet those capabilities.

Neumann, Nexen: We continue to see tire sizes grow to accommodate higher curb weights and payloads. Trucks are not getting any smaller, and the larger and heavier they get, the larger the brakes they need. Eighteen-inch  and 20-inch  tires are now base fitments, with 22-inch option fitments.  Customers like the looks, but they might not like the bill from their first tire change!

There are OEM versions of the Falken WildPeak A/T AT3W and WildPeak M/T MT01 for FCA’s Jeep Gladiator Rubicon, both in size LT285/70R17 Load Range C (Load Index 116). This size in the WildPeak M/T MT01 is also shared between the Gladiator Rubicon and the Wrangler Rubicon.

Howlett, Sumitomo: OE LT tire sizes are getting bigger and bigger. Jeep recently moved the Wrangler [JK] Rubicon from LT255/75R17, 32-inch overall diameter, to LT285/70R17 LRC, 33-inch overall diameter. The Ford F-150 Raptor is equipped with LT315/7R017 LRC, 35-inch overall diameter, and the Ford Bronco Badlands and Sasquatch packages followed suit. FCA responded to the Raptor with the Ram 1500 TRX equipped with 35-inch tires (LT325/65R18’s) and we expect Jeep to respond to the Bronco with a larger tire size offering, as hinted by their Wrangler “392” and Gladiator “Farout” concept vehicles. Even the 3/4-ton heavy-duty trucks are moving up in overall diameter. The  Ford F-250 Tremor is equipped with 35-inch LT285/75R18 LREs. We have no reason to believe this trend will slow anytime soon, and at this rate, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see 37-inch OE LT tires in the near future. The only question is: who will be the first to make it happen?

Toyo says the OE market is looking to the aftermarket for inspiration in both tire sizing and designs.

Bergeson, Toyo: Over the last 15 years, larger trucks have become more than just commercial- duty vehicles. Increasingly, these vehicles are being used for family duty and in some cases, as luxury vehicles. With these high-price levels, consumers expect a truck that works hard, as well as looks good and hence, larger wheel and tire packages. Eighteen-inch and 20-inch offerings have become the new norm in most of the higher-end trim levels being offered today and provide a premium look and feel to the truck. Also, the OE off-road market is changing with more 33-inch to 35-inch tires being offered as OE on off-road oriented models. The OEMs are looking at the aftermarket industry for inspiration in creating exciting new vehicles and the tire sizing and designs are definitely part of the appeal.

Abram, Yokohama: Eighteen-inch and 20-inch LT sizes on full-size pickups are exploding. Since 2015, 20-inch LT tires have more than doubled and 18-inch LT tires have grown over 50%.

About the Author

Joy Kopcha | Managing Editor

After more than a dozen years working as a newspaper reporter in Kansas, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, Joy Kopcha joined Modern Tire Dealer as senior editor in 2014. She has covered murder trials, a prison riot and more city council, county commission, and school board meetings than she cares to remember.

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