History has shown that the tire industry has often achieved the necessary tire research long before the vehicle industry has understood the need for it, or customers have come to recognize the new requirements. As Aki Nakamura, the retired director of research from SRI in Japan, states: “Time catches up with the argument.”
Today, vehicles are expected to have a level of performance that is often way beyond the average driver’s needs. This and vehicle reliability are now taken for granted.
The major demands now from the motorist are for fuel economy, comfort and safety. From a government viewpoint, the issues that are driving the regulations for vehicles and tires are fuel saving, weight reduction and the reduction of emissions.
Vehicle manufacturers are now going to the edge of material science to achieve these requirements. Examples are the expanding use of carbon-fiber composites and the moves toward energy scavenging. Even the removal of the vehicle wiring system and the introduction of drive-by-wire is gaining interest.
It is unlikely that the vehicle industry will move forward in its technology more quickly than the market needs (unlike the IT industry), but we are already seeing the growth of hybrid vehicles and the slow-but-sure growth of EVs. All OEMs now have such vehicles either in their range or under development. In addition, for their conventionally powered range they are demanding a reduction in vehicle weight and a reduction in the drag component at higher speeds.
The changes in vehicle design to achieve the three objectives of fuel efficiency, comfort and safety will have a major impact on tire design. Fuel-efficiency targets aimed at reducing the industry’s carbon footprint will result in even lower tire rolling resistance. In this context, the recent research in the understanding of filler-to-polymer chain bonding and the modification of polymer structures, promises lower energy losses whether using conventional or natural materials.
The move to higher aspect ratio tires and larger wheel diameters will reduce tire rolling resistance and wind drag on the vehicle traveling at speed. The tire size change will also have the potential advantage of improving comfort. The spare tire will, for weight-saving reasons, become history. However, the customer will require safety and convenience in the case of a puncture.
Whoever produces the tires and systems with the lowest rolling resistance, greenest footprint, lowest wind drag and most comfort, yet with the highest level of safety and convenience (runflat, wet-road performance and maintenance-free TPMS), will head this year’s tire ‘fashion’ show.
These are tire design matters for 2014, but there are others pressing for later, all of which are putting pressure on skilled and experienced tire scientists. Are there sufficient young tire engineers and researchers in training? There is considerable demand for qualified staff in the newer tire companies entering Europe and this has resulted in some staff movement.
Additionally, the comparatively low numbers contesting the Young Scientist Prize, even for £2,500 (US$4,150), suggests a lack of students covering tire and material studies. Throughout my career it has been noticeable that the better the scientist, the better the communicator, hence such people were not only expected to manage tire developments, but were often called upon to be the scientific face of the company.
Today’s demanding pace of change, coupled with the scarcity of experienced tire specialists, is also reflected within the vehicle industry. This sets challenges for technology conference organizers to obtain those ‘under pressure’ key speakers for academic presentations. The demand for specialist courses increases and the search for the top specialist teachers is becoming more challenging. Yet to compete in the 2014-and-beyond fashion show of tire technology, fresh new engineers will be in very great demand.