Heading toward 2000 and beyond, about the only sure bet is that tires will be rolling into the next century with even less resistance. But are you ready for ``intelligent'' tires? Run-flats that deliver a better ride, greater load-carrying capacity and 10-percent better fuel economy? Or tires that have moved beyond fashion statements or declarations of power to become—shades of the Internet—information providers?
These are some of the developments that are in periscope range. Original equipment manufacturers and consumers, Tire Business was told, still want the basics: economy, safety and traction. And although there won't be what David E. Cole, head of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, called an ``omega-change''— like the switch from the bias-belted to the radial tire—today's tire engineers still have some intriguing tricks up their sleeves.
Today's ABS systems could be dinosaurs in a few years, if Continental General Tire's (CGT) plans for a ``smart'' tire bear fruit. Yes, this is a new frontier in tires—where the rubber meets the silicon chip. With Continental's ``Sidewall torsion sensor system'' (SWT), the tire is impregnated with magnetized powder, creating sensor zones. These bands radiate from the axis of the wheel/tire like the spokes of a wheel. The powder's magnetic polarity alternates, enabling sensors mounted on the suspension to measure traction and the other forces between the vehicle and the road.
``The tire becomes a key sensor component of the vehicle, contributing to its handling and stopping systems,'' said Tom Janello, OE business manager of innovations and special projects for CGT.
``The advantage of the system over ABS is that ABS basically estimates the time of the peak traction of the tire. That small estimation is sometimes not as accurate as it should be. Now—using the tire itself as the sensor—there is no error.''
Additional advantages, Mr. Janello said, are that if tires are installed that differ from the vehicle manufacturer's original specification, current ABS can't entirely adjust for the individual coefficients. This system can determine the peak instantly.
The company said its SWT technology will also cure the pulsating that is sometimes sent through the brake pedal of today's ABS. Unprepared drivers, Mr. Janello said, can become frightened and let up on the brake pedal. ``As soon as you back off, you lose the advantage of ABS. Because SWT is more precise, you get a smooth, lower pressure to accomplish the same, or even better, effect.''
Mr. Janello said simulations have confirmed its ``intelligent tire'' will stop vehicles in a shorter distance and more consistently. Real-world testing, using a ``mule'' that has tandem systems for true ``A-B'' tests, is being conducted in Germany by CGT's parent, Continental A.G.
Continental's system consists of the four magnetic tires, modules at each corner that contain the sensors (one near the bead and the other at the bead), a signal-conditioning circuit and a computer that digests the data stream and calculates how the suspension and traction control systems react.
``Considering the tire an information provider transforms the traditional role of the tire,'' said Jim Giustino, senior research associate at CGT. ``The Intelligent Tire is perhaps as revolutionary as radialization.''
The company said the system is practical, the magnetic strips add little to the cost, so replacing the intelligent tire won't smart, when it comes to the pocketbook.
Run-flat tires, with their promise of going 100 or more miles even after suffering damage, are a front-burner priority for several manufacturers, each of whom seem to have their own solution. But there are challenges.
People want this technology, but not at the cost of tire-riding comfort and price, said Brian Buckham of Kumho Tire U.S.A. Inc. ``The cost of the pressure monitoring system is also a current customer complaint. The OEMs, to this point, also have been unwilling to sacrifice rolling resistance and tire weight. A new generation of run-flats will need to be developed to address these areas.''
And that's just what the major tire makers are attempting. Michelin, which pioneered radial tires in the 1950s, decided that there was little room left for improvement in the original radial design. The result was the company's PAX run-flat system.
``We realized that if you want big gains, you had to do something radically different,'' said Don Baldwin, manager of new business development for Michelin's automotive industry division.
By ``getting outside of the box,'' Michelin engineers zeroed in on the bead area of the traditional tire. The bead area anchors the tire to the wheel but wastes energy.
``The PAX system changes that bead area so we don't have those losses,'' Mr. Baldwin said. ``In the process we have a vertical sidewall, and in combination with the new bead design, it generates less heat allowing the tire to carry about two or three load indexes more than a standard radial tire.''
A mechanical lock makes it impossible for the tire to detach from the wheel, even in a blowout, he said.
The PAX system delivers 8 to 10 percent less rolling resistance, Mr. Baldwin said. That equates to about a 1- to 2-percent improvement in fuel economy in addition to better load-carrying capacity and ride quality. And the shorter sidewall not only is more stylish but affords vehicle designers more room for brakes and/or passenger compartments, he added.
Look for PAX to be on a North American-made vehicle in 2001. They'll be available in Europe next year.
From concept cars to J.D. Power consumer surveys to environmental cars, the run-flat arena appears to be the wave of the future, said Bill Egan, Goodyear's chief engineer of advanced product design.
Hand-carved P235/55R19 run-flat Goodyears are on DaimlerChrysler's all-wheel-drive Citadel concept car, which sports a V-6 engine in combination with an electric motor and battery pack. The Jeep Commander has fuel cells, a technology DaimlerChrysler said it could produce by 2004. Goodyear is working on developing a run-flat tire in the Commander's P275/55R20 size.
Meanwhile, run-flat versions of Eagle GS-D high-performance tires allow the supercharged Dodge Charger R/T, which runs on compressed natural gas, to eliminate the traditional spare tire and jack.
``Spin-offs from concept tire designs may be plausible as we continue to improve performance attributes, such as traction, treadlife, handling, ride, rolling resistance and noise,'' Mr. Egan said.
In the run-flat category, Continental's engineers have come up with two developmental approaches to run-flats. The Conti SafetyRing (CSR) is intended for the replacement market. A lightweight (6 to 7 lbs.) ring is inserted inside the tire and wheel. The rings do not affect rolling resistance and work with the ``same wheel that you're using today,'' CGT's Mr. Janello said.
The CSR is undergoing qualification testing with OEMs in Europe and America and could be seen on some 2003-model vehicles. In addition, the company may do market research with a major U.S. retailer. Costs have not been determined but are expected to be competitive.
The ContiWheel System is an OEM product that uses a special wheel. Its major advantages are increased space available for braking systems, improved rolling resistance, better ride and elimination of the spare tire and jack. Both the CSR and the CWS are designed to work with zero air pressure, the company said.
Some tire manufacturers, like Michelin, are striving to develop very-low-rolling-resistance tires for use on the alternative-fuel, high-efficiency vehicles that auto makers expect to produce.
General Motors Corp.'s EV1s are shod with Michelin Proxima RR tires, Mr. Baldwin said.
The company will propose PAX tires. Even though the larger-diameter PAX System assembly is about 15 percent heavier, it still is very energy efficient and allows the elimination of the spare and jack and the potential for an overall vehicle weight reduction, he said.
Like Apple computers and, more recently, ``e Machines,'' tire makers are looking at colors and style as a selling advantage.
Michelin in August introduced the BFGoodrich Scorcher T/A, featuring a color-striped tread—and the tires have begun to appear in car shows. ``People are using color for appropriate vehicles and appropriate applications,'' Mr. Baldwin said.
``Now we can give dealers the technology that will ensure they're not going to have someone coming back in six months complaining that the colors are fading or discoloring.''
Kumho's Mr. Buckham agreed, saying colored tires ``may be the next fast-growing market niche.'' Kumho introduced yellow-, red-and blue-colored tires in Korea over a year ago, he said and added: ``We think younger `Generation X'ers' and women will be the initial market for them.''
The Delphi Forecast, a marketing study last conducted in June 1998 by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, asked more than 100 auto industry executives to predict what the North American landscape will be like.
These executives said that by 2007, airless spares will be fitted on 5 percent of the new cars sold, failure-sensing tires will be on 10 percent; 20 percent will feature puncture-resistant/self-sealing tires; run-flats and no-spares will account for 10 percent each.
Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., for its part, sees a continued shift from all-season tires to purpose-built summer and winter tires. ``Consumers want to optimize the performance of their highly engineered vehicles by using the right tires,'' said company spokeswoman Melissa Dykstra. ``The biggest challenge for the consumer tire industry will be anticipating what customers want and going to market quickly with the products that address those wants and needs.''
Mr. Baldwin of Michelin agreed that responsiveness to customers is crucial: ``We're doing more market research than we've ever done to make sure we're being responsive to the consumer. To really meet the needs of the OEM, we need to understand what their customer is wanting and needing. They look to us to be the experts.''
He said Michelin learned some lessons from the U.S. introduction of the radial tire decades ago.
``We're concentrating on aftermarket service. If someone buys a car and they've got the PAX technology on it, if something goes wrong—they hit a nail and need to get it fixed—we want to make it easy and economical for them to get the tire fixed,'' he said. ``We know more about distribution, communication via satellite and the Internet.''