When will tires last as long as vehicles?

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As general manager for Dunlop truck tires in the 1980s, I was shocked to see a radial truck tire casing that had completed a 1,600,000km life, including two retread cycles. If we consider the truck tire’s design, it clearly is created to support the greater loads and recycling that is part of the service specification. But how different is it from a car tire, which carries less load and we have come to expect to change multiple times during a vehicle’s life?

It may be expected that the revolution that will achieve the use of green and replenishable materials will almost certainly develop new raw materials based on natural products that will outperform the existing man-made equivalents. This will surely be the result of the technologies now available to study the chemistry and the physics of these materials, from which we are gathering a greater understanding of product performance enhancement. A second reason is that the younger recruits to the industry have been educated since starting school to be green and preserve our world’s resources.

At every Tire Technology Conference we have seen graphs of rapidly increasing car-tire demand and the associated predicted demand for raw materials. History shows that such predictions are unreliable: graphs in the late 19th century predicted that the increase in horse drawn vehicles would bury London in manure! Happily this prediction proved wrong. The connection between the tire growth and horse manure forecasts is that they are both unreasonable and illogical, in my opinion.

Eric-Philippe Vinesse, senior VP of pre-development for Michelin, stated at the 2014 Tire Technology Conference: “Vehicle growth cannot go on without restraints.” You may ask why this is the case, when demand for the road transport of goods and people will surely increase? The answer is that predictions relating to tires and material demand assume that tires will be restricted to today’s service life and performance levels.

A review of the recent research relating to tire technology and materials gives a clear indication of the next technology upheaval. Sumitomo Dunlop introduced the 100% fossil-fuel-free tire in November 2013, a feat that many other tire manufacturers are still trying to emulate. Yet all companies are claiming green credentials. TPMS, carbon footprint calculations and replenishable raw materials are all part of the industry’s environmental thinking.

Following Sumitomo’s achievement, the next real step toward a greener tire industry is to avoid three or more sets of tires being required throughout the life of an average car. The tire industry’s reluctance to reduce its highly profitable sales in the replacement tire market is understandable, yet with a little consideration, an appropriate and justified increase in the new tire price of OEM tire fitments could offset the loss of two sets of replacements.

The consequences of this move may be summarized as a gradual stabilization in raw material demand, a lower growth rate in tire production, and the reduction abusive practices, such as the sale of part worn or poorly repaired tires. Other consequences would be the increase in sale of many replacement tires directly through new car outlets, in turn supporting greater connectivity between tire and vehicle relative to safety and control. A reduction in tire fitment outlets, tire warehouses, and most importantly in scrap tire disposal, can also be foreseen.

It is not the role of this column to discuss how this may be achieved through tire design, but having spent 50 years in tire technology, I would be shocked and disappointed if the leading tire manufacturers were not fully aware of this situation. They may well be withholding the technology at present but they will surely respond once a major company moves to become the leader of the green revolution.

The tire industry has learned from the last revolution in tires, the move from crossply to radial, that being late could mean the end of one’s business. Given that the top five manufacturers account for over 50% of the world’s tire production, the effect of just one of these companies breaking ranks would be dramatic.

One final thought: perhaps what is described above could be brought forward through a proactive move from the tire regulators. They may well take encouragement from the somewhat premature introduction of TPMS regulations, which have proved successful. Maybe we will one day see an A-standard wear rating for car tires based on 100,000 miles/160,000km?

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