TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.—Goodyear's longtime supplier relationship with the U.S. Army could lead to business with auto makers contemplating production of severe-duty vehicles.
The U.S. Army's National Automotive Center is testing a new breed of "super-tough" pickup trucks rugged enough to go anywhere the HMMWV, or "Humvee," can go. (The HMMWV, for High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, is manufactured by AM General Corp., which also makes a commercial/ civilian version called the Hummer.)
In early August at a course carved into the back hills of a Traverse City orchard, the vehicles scaled 45-degree-angle side slopes of crusty clay and mud, maneuvered water-filled trenches at the bottom of sharp hills and climbed piles of fallen trees as easily as a tank.
The COMBATT project takes military technology and installs it on regular commercial light trucks for HMMWV-type performance, and on Humvees for better performance. The Army's ultimate goal is to secure combat performance at a lower cost. Its auto maker partners' goal is a potential world market for the vehicles.
"What the (original equipment manufacturers) are getting out of this is a good look at a severe-duty vehicle in the Army's environment," said Harrold L. Almand, COMBATT project manager at the Warren, Mich.-based National Automotive Center. "They're looking right now to see if they have a good business case to go forward with a severe-duty truck."
That opens more doors for Goodyear, which already supplies OE vehicle manufacturers with tires for many platforms, including the newest commercial Hummer, the H2. The COMBATT program's severe-duty vehicles could attract interest not only from other branches of the U.S. military, but also the border patrol, law enforcement agencies and foreign militaries, Mr. Almand said.
"We look for opportunities to utilize our technology in military applications and commercial applications," said Jim Nespo, a military tire applications engineer at Goodyear. "The technology of the Durawall sidewall and the load-carrying capacity of the tires will fit in the (off-road) market." (Auto makers participating in the program did not return calls on the matter.)
All three of the program's demonstration vehicles—a 1999 Dodge 2500/3500 4x4 four-door Quad Cab pickup truck, a 1999 Ford F350 4x4 four-door Crew Cab pickup truck and a HMMWV—are equipped with Goodyear tires.
"We have basically gone through the design process and put a lot of the military service requirements in the tires for the COMBATT program—mud-traction, ride and handling," Mr. Nespo said.
With thicker sidewalls, the tires on the COMBATT vehicles can take a lot of punishment, Mr. Almand said. They feature the run-flat inserts Hutchinson S.A. has been supplying to the Army since the mid-1980s, as well as new forged aluminum wheels from the French company.
The tires can be inflated or deflated from a flat-panel display inside the vehicle tied to Dana Corp.'s central tire inflation system, which brings air in through the axle.
With Hutchinson's run-flat capability, the tires can go 30 miles at zero pressure, running 30 miles per hour and carrying full load capacity of about two tons.
Goodyear is looking at technologies that try to provide similar run-flat capabilites, Mr. Nespo said, "but with the loads and high sidewalls, right now the EMT technology doesn't support that platform."
Before an operator starts driving, he must tell the computer whether his load is full, half full or empty, and what kind of soil conditions he's going to cross—highway, cross-country, mud, sand, snow or emergency.
"Based on those two settings, the computer and the speed you're driving will tune the suspension system," said Richard Knox, deputy manager of the program at Veridian ERIM International, the company that rebuilt the trucks.
For example, in an emergency condition where the truck is stuck, the computer will deflate the tires almost completely and raise the vehicle up until it is no longer stuck, Mr. Almand said.
And the computerized system is forgiving. "If I tell it I'm in mud, sand and snow.|.|.|and the computer says you're no longer in mud, sand and snow, it will air up the tires," Mr. Knox said.
"What we have done is designed the outside diameter of the tires to be dimensionally the same as the tires on the Humvee to maintain the ride height for vegetative clearance," Mr. Nespo said.
The Dodge truck is equipped with 37-inch Wrangler GS-A tires, load range E, mounted on 17-inch rims, while the HMMWV comes with a 16.5-inch rim and Wrangler MT 37x12.50R16.5LT tires.
Although they boast the same performance characteristics and also are mounted on 17-inch rims, the tires on the Ford COMBATT truck are the Wrangler MT/R with more aggressive tread that extends onto the sidewall. "We're showing and we're giving feedback to Goodyear that this tread is outstanding," Mr. Almand said.
The sidewall tread elements actually help the vehicle grip when it's leaning against the side of a slope, he said. "We took it out to Oregon three weeks ago in some very severe environments, and it did extremely well."
Now in its third year, the COMBATT program operates as a cooperative effort between the U.S. Army Tank Automotive and Armaments Command in Warren, Mich., and several vehicle manufacturers—including DaimlerChrysler A.G., Ford Motor Co. and AM General—under the auspices of the National Automotive Center.
General Motors Corp. was the program's original partner in December 1997, but busy with launching the Silverado late that year and early 1998, the auto maker could not dedicate the engineering resources necessary to ensure that any structural modifications made to the vehicles were sound, Mr. Almand said.
"We have talked to GM.... They drove the Ford truck and they were most impressed," he said. "They could be looking at this program very seriously."
In the second phase of the project, the team will build several COMBATT models, likely using 2003 or 2004 model year vehicles, Mr. Almand said. Goodyear will be a part of Phase II, Mr. Nespo added.
Exactly how many vehicles will be built in Phase II will depend on financing. Since it began in December 1997, the program has seen roughly $14 million worth of combined funding, Mr. Almand said.
"We're going to build more of each of the variants.|.|.|to mature the design and mature the relationships between the OEMs and our subcontractors and the suppliers," he said.