Facing the inevitable reality of higher raw materials and energy costs for the forseeable future as well as the growing number of vehicles worldwide, Group Michelin is intensifying its efforts to cut materials use and rolling resistance while improving tire performance.
Among the company's targets: Passenger car and light truck tires that double the durability of current tires yet are built from only half the raw materials; medium truck tires that cut stopping distances by 20 to 30 percent; and tires designed to reduce rolling resistance by half.
Each of those targets was disclosed in briefings recently at Michelin's world headquarters in Clermont-Ferrand and its primary research and development center in nearby Ladoux.
While Michelin executives were eager to entice, they were reluctant to provide many specific details, except for demonstrations on the Ladoux test track to show the benefits of reduced rolling resistance, of maintaining proper tire pressures, of the Pax run-flat tire/wheel system and of the company's state-of-the-art wet test track that already is drawing auto makers and their heavily camouflaged prototype vehicles for pre-production testing.
Michelin said its motivation for such research and development targets includes the escalating prices of raw materials and the expanding size of the world's vehicle fleet.
Didier Miraton, who heads a staff of 4,500 scientists, engineers and technicians working in Michelin R&D facilities globally, noted that the number of vehicles on the road is expected to double to 1.6 billion in the next 30 years.
Much of the growth will be in developing nations such as China, India, Russia and in eastern Europe and South America, areas all experiencing not only rapid expansion of their fleets but of roads to carry them.
Mr. Miraton used the word ``breakage'' in describing the severity of the environmental impact if drastic developments are not made.
Twenty to as much as 25 percent of the pollution generated by a typical vehicle's internal combustion engine is expended to overcome the rolling resistance of that vehicle's wheels, the executives said. As rolling resistance decreases, fuel efficiency rises.
``The collective benefit for society is decreased pollution and exhaust emissions,'' Mr. Miraton said.
Michelin's introduction of radial tires in the late 1940s reduced rolling resistance to around 15 kg/ton from 25. Michelin said its Energy line of passenger car tires in the early 1990s reduced that number to 11, and the third-generation Energy tires launched last year cut the number to less than nine.
In the last 10 years, Michelin also has reduced rolling resistance by cutting more than four pounds from the weight of a typical passenger car tire. Reducing a tire's flex and changing the mix of rubber and using more silica in the tread also cut rolling resistance.
``But,'' said Michelin Technical Communications Director Pierre Menendes, ``it is of no interest to us to reduce the rolling resistance if the life of the tire is compromised.'' The tire's lifespan, in mileage, may not deteriorate, and hopefully will be increased.
``The idea is not to limit mobility, that would be crazy,'' he added. ``Human beings have a big thirst for individual mobility. Michelin is responding to this need, but in a responsible way.''
Mr. Menendes spoke standing on the Ladoux test track, where Michelin showed two identical cars, one equipped with third-generation Energy tires and the other with a future-generation prototype. The cars accelerated to 20 mph then were put into neutral and allowed to coast.
The car with the experimental tires with a rolling resistance of around 6.5 coasted an extra 200 feet.
Michelin's goal is to produce passenger car tires with rolling resistance figures in the 4.5 range.
It also wants to build tires that last twice as long but consume only half the raw materials currently needed to construct a tire.
``We're already experiencing a number of shortages in raw materials and this will become worse and worse,'' Mr. Miraton claimed.
Shortages also mean higher costs. Michelin said its bill for natural rubber increased 35 percent in 2002, another 35 percent in 2003 and last year bumped up another 16 percent. Another double-digit increase is forecast for 2005.
While natural rubber is the largest single ingredient in tires, other components such as steel, synthetic rubber and chemicals such as butadiene and styrene, both obtained from the cracking of oil, all are experiencing higher pricing inflation than natural rubber.
``The next decade is a world of more expensive resources,'' added Edouard Michelin, chief executive of Group Michelin. ``Energy costs are not going to fall and raw materials are not going to revert to five years ago. This is a new reality we must face.''
Herve Coyco, head of Michelin's passenger car and light truck tire division, noted that while his company's tires may carry a 15-percent price premium, in Europe they provide 30-percent longer wear and a 15-percent reduction in fuel consumption compared to industry averages.
He added that balancing rolling resistance and grip is a challenge that Michelin tackles on two major fronts: tire architecture and tread and materials.
Complicating the work for tire company research scientists and engineers is the fact that vehicles are getting heavier and more powerful and thus put more weight and more tire-eating torque to their tires.
The proliferation of sport-utility vehicles isn't the only culprit. Mr. Coyco said the recently launched fourth-generation Volkswagen Golf, a very compact car, weighs several hundred pounds more than the third-generation Golf.
He also noted that the growing diesel and hybrid fleets with electric motors that provide instant high torque are responsible for increasing tire wear.
One solution Michelin is pursuing is the elimination of unneeded tires. Pax tire/wheel systems were designed to operate safely even when they lose air and thus eliminate the need for a spare tire. Eliminating spare tires not only frees raw materials for other uses but helps decrease a vehicle's overall weight.
Michelin's X-One truck tire was designed to replace dual tires on semi trailers, turning 18-wheelers into 10-wheelers. Reducing the number of wheels and tires can allow tractors to be reconfigured to carry more and even heavier cargo.