Drivers in China have pulled into the fast lane.
``Ten years ago there were almost no cars in China,'' said Eric Jugier, chairman of Michelin (China) Investment Co. Ltd.
Two years ago, though, China swept around Italy, France and England to become the world's fourth-largest passenger car marketplace. Last year it passed Germany and now trails only the U.S. and Japan in annual auto sales.
That's just passenger cars and original equipment fitments at that. Even with the slower of two growth projections for the Chinese auto industry, the replacement car tire market here figures to equal Japan's within 10 years.
``China is the largest truck and bus tire market in the world, even above the United States in new tire sales,'' Mr. Jugier added.
``Today in China, the truck (tire) market is 20 times larger than the car market,'' said Jean Marc Francois, president of Michelin Asia-Pacific.
Last year, Chinese truck and bus operators purchased 30 million new tires-most of them old-fashioned bias plies.
But the radial market is growing, Mr. Jugier said, adding that the Chinese radial bus and truck tire market already is as large as in Japan.
Of 127 million truck and bus tires sold around the world last year, China consumed nearly 24 percent.
And the once-sleeping giant is really just getting rolling.
In a country where until recently there were no intercity roads similar to U.S. interstates, nearly 25,000 miles of divided highway should be ready sometime between the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World's Expo.
In part because of the difficulty of intercity transportation, China has hundreds of tire makers, most of which build just for their immediate vicinity.
By the same token, most tire shops have no balance or alignment equipment, and fitment often is based on whatever stock the shop might have on hand.
However, China has national brands, including Michelin, Bridgestone, Goodyear, Hankook, Kumho, GT and Warrior, a 70-year-old brand and China's largest native tire maker.
In 2001, Group Michelin took a controlling interest in Warrior when it won approval from the Chinese government to spend $200 million for a 70-percent stake in a joint venture with Shanghai Tire.
In addition to a tire plant and a steel cord factory at Shanghai, Michelin has had a plant at Shenyang, in northern China, since 1996.
During a lunch break between visits to the Shanghai facilities the day after the recent Michelin Challenge Bibendum rally, managing partner Edouard Michelin said the company likely would add other facilities in China and elsewhere throughout Asia as it seeks to grow its market share.
``Only 2 percent of our business is from China,'' Mr. Michelin said, ``but it was zero in 1996.''
Michelin is the world's largest tire maker, but while it holds a market share of 40 percent or more in Europe, its share in Asia is only about 10 percent, Mr. Jugier said.
But the French company is strong in the passenger car radial replacement tire business in China-24 percent, with another 5 percent for Warrior-and figures to do well in the bus and truck replacement tire segment as the large Chinese vehicles move onto modern radials that are retreadable.
Mr. Francois noted that 45 percent of the passenger car tire sales in the Asia-Pacific region are in Japan, but that China, India and other markets are growing quickly.
At present, he said Michelin is the fourth largest tire maker in Asia but soon should stand second (behind Bridgestone Corp.)
In addition to bringing new technology to tire making in China, Michelin is working to update tire dealerships, in both training and equipment, and to create a stable supplier base.
Michelin employs 5,000 in China, where annual wages for its factory employees are in the $4,000-$5,000 range, some 40-50 percent higher than the typical Chinese factory worker's earnings.
The Shanghai Michelin Warrior Tire Co. plant soon may be producing more tires than any other Michelin facility worldwide, said Plant Manager Gary Scheide, an American with a doctorate in polymer chemistry.
Asked whether such factories in China might soon be a source of tires for other markets, Mr. Francois said that for the foreseeable future China needs all the tires Michelin can build.
He added that the Asia-Pacific region already consumes one-third of the world's tires ``and demand is growing by 6 percent a year, and soon this will be the world's largest region,'' so ``in five years we may think about it (exports).''