Whether destined to supplant traditional dual truck tires or to remain a specialty niche product, wide-base singles are becoming an object of heated competition among the major tire manufacturers.
The growth potential for these tires, which replace the dual tires in the drive and trailer positions, is either robust or minimal, depending on who's talking.
Michelin Americas Truck Tires, which first introduced the tires in 2000 with its X One line, has great expectations while its competitors view the technology as strictly a niche item. That hasn't deterred them, however, from jumping into the market with their own versions of what have been called ``super singles.''
Bridgestone started selling its Greatec line in 2003. Goodyear will introduce its version later this year and Continental plans to unveil its entry in 2006.
The wide-base single tires are popular in Europe, and Michelin said that since their introduction in the U.S. market, X One sales have more than doubled every year.
``We expect dramatic growth in 2005,'' said Michael Burroughes, production portfolio manager for Michelin. The Greenville, S.C.-based tire maker plans to introduce within a few weeks a next generation X One-the X One XDA-HT (high torque) and XDA-HT+-which the company claims will provide improved performance and more equivalent mileage as duals for high scrub use.
``We expect (wide-based singles) to replace a significant portion of the market. The performance and payback is better,'' Mr. Burroughes said, adding: ``We believe very strongly this is not an emerging technology. We've gone through the development phase. Now it's in the critical and rapid growth phase.''
Reflecting its confidence, Michelin recently expanded X One capacity at its Spartanburg, S.C., plant and also is stepping up output of tread rubber for the wide-based product.
Michelin claims the tires can help increase payloads by up to 15 percent while increasing fuel economy nearly 10 percent. Mounted on an aluminum wheel, the wide-base tire/wheel package weighs about 250 pounds vs. about 375 pounds for a pair of conventional radials.
A vehicle equipped with wide-base tire and aluminum wheel assemblies can save up to 1,200 pounds or more when compared with a vehicle with dual tire and steel wheel assemblies.
In addition, recent changes to the way Federal Excise Tax is applied to tires has given the wide-base singles a slight price advantage, according to dealers who sell them. Other manufacturers aren't so sure of the market's potential.
Niche market only?
``It's still a niche market,'' said Guy Walenga, engineering manager for Bridgestone/Firestone North American Commercial Products. ``We see the growth as slow and constant. Of all the possible applications, (wide-base singles account for) 3 to 4 percent of all truck tire wheel positions out there. We see it growing from 4 percent to 5 or 5.5 percent.''
``It is Continental's opinion that we believe this is a niche product,'' said Clif Armstrong, Conti's director of marketing for commercial vehicle tires. ``In certain applications it has a great benefit.'' However, ``there are some drawbacks to the marketplace that prevent it from taking over the market,'' he added, noting concerns about service availability on the road and retreading potential.
Yokohama Tire Corp. is equally uncertain about the tires' widespread acceptance. ``(Wide-base singles) are not making a giant impact. It makes sense in some applications but not in others,'' according to the Fullerton, Calif.-based tire maker, which is testing its own designs in Japan but has no plans to market any in the near future.
``We're finding that they are not for everybody,'' added Al Cohn, Goodyear's technical marketing manager for commercial tires.
``There are certain segments of the market where it's not an advantage,'' Mr. Burroughes said. ``But there is a large portion of the truck market ripe for adapting the technology. Those with duals will be at a competitive disadvantage.''
The obvious advantage of halving the number of tires on a truck is the reduction in overall weight, which in turn allows a truck to have better fuel economy and carry larger loads. ``(Wide-base singles) generally are better cost per mile,'' said Bridgestone's Mr. Walenga.
``Any fleet, at a bare minimum, will get a 4-percent reduction in fuel consumption.'' Michelin's Mr. Burroughes claimed.
However, there are inherent trade-offs. With one tire doing the work of two, wide-base mileage life can be about 10-30 percent less than duals, estimated Goodyear's Mr. Cohn, and if maintained properly, a wide-base can undergo only one retreading as opposed to two for duals.
Another trade-off is the lack of the ``limp home'' feature of duals when one goes flat on the road. This disadvantage is especially glaring if a trucker is stranded on a rural route with no tire replacements readily available. Therefore, ``fleets using (super singles) tend to be regional fleets, travelling a 300-mile radius, rather than long haulers,'' noted Mr. Cohn.
However, Michelin said its tires are suitable for long-haulers after working ``diligently'' to ensure availability of replacements in most markets.
Likewise, Bridgestone said its tires are available at most truck stops and dealerships, making up thousands of points of sale. If a truck is really stuck without replacements, a dual assembly can be mounted, both companies said.
Tire manufacturers agree that it's important for fleets to monitor and maintain proper air pressure to ensure a long life for the wide-base singles. ``Tire pressure maintenance is critical,'' Mr. Cohn pointed out. ``If you are a fleet that doesn't check its tires, this tire is not for you.''
The best candidates for wide-base singles are liquid tankers that often ``gross out in weight before they cube out (in load),'' Mr. Walenga explained.
Michelin said line haulers and bulk transporters-both long hauls and regional runs-can benefit from the tires. In January, the company added a new product targeted for urban applications, particularly waste haulers.
Belle Tire in Detroit is probably the leading seller of X Ones in North America, supplying more than 30 accounts in Michigan, according to Vice President Tom Bowman, who said Belle's sales of the product grew about 30 percent last year over 2003. The firm also invested in new equipment at its retread plants to handle the wider tires.
As with any new technology, customers want to test the product themselves before making an investment, and that can be a lengthy process. Fleets need to evaluate the cost benefits, investment in wheels, fuel economy and maintenance expenses by testing it on their trucks. Such field testing can involve 350,000 miles on the original and retread and last about three years. No two fleets are the same, noted Mr. Cohn, so a trucking firm isn't going to buy certain tires just because another company liked them.
Snider Tire of Greensboro, N.C., sold 2,500 wide-base singles to about 100 fleets last year. Of those fleets, 10 are actually running on the tires while the rest are still evaluating them, said Marty Herndon, vice president of commercial sales and marketing. The dealership expects to sell about 4,000 wide-base singles of both Michelin and Bridgestone brands this year and plans to add the Goodyear and Continental versions to its tire offering when they come out.
While the tire is growing in popularity among some fleets, Mr. Herndon said he believes the wide-base singles will settle in at around 5-10 percent of the market. Retreadability seems to be the main concern of fleets, he said, and so far his dealership has retreaded only a small percentage of the wide-base single trailer tires. ``That's why we believe it won't replace duals,'' he said.
Manufacturers still are evaluating the retreading life, but Bridgestone's Mr. Walenga argued that the quality of a tire isn't based on the number of retreadings it can get, but mileage. ``(Wide-base singles) are too new to know the mileage life,'' he said, reiterating that proper maintenance is vital for life expectancy.
``In a perfect world, if you maintain air pressure, you can get one retreading. For two retreadings, you need to get really lucky,'' Mr. Cohn said.
Michelin is qualifying its tires for one retreading and is learning from field experience whether to expand into multiple lives. It expects multiple retreadings for its X One XZUS dedicated for urban use.
Jack's Tire & Oil Inc. in Logan, Utah, started retreading X One casings twice last year in a program supported by its trucking customers and Michelin, according to Dick Tolotti, vice president.
The main impact of this technology on tire dealers is the weight issue. ``You need to be Paul Bunyon to pick it up,'' Mr. Cohn said of super singles. But he added that dealerships usually have the equipment to service the larger tires-which can weight about 190 pounds-without the wheel.
There are no special tools required, according to Mr. Walenga-only a technical expertise and attention to detail. ``It behooves the dealer to have that technical ability,'' he added.
Snider Tire's Mr. Herndon said that the profit margin on the wide base singles, priced around $600-$650, is the same as selling two dual tires. And he said Snider Tire employees undergo special training to handle the more cumbersome tires. But it all comes down to fulfilling the fleet customers' needs. ``It's all about weight savings and fuel saving,'' he said.