Run-flat tires, at one time only an option for select ultra-high performance vehicles, are gaining ground in the original equipment segment and soon will impact the replacement market.
Among auto makers, BMW A.G. is recognized as the leader and will equip all of its 3 Series fleet with run-flats for the 2006 model year. The Infiniti G35, Lexus GS430 and SC430, and even more mainstream vehicles such as the Toyota Sienna and Mazda MX5 are being equipped with run-flat options.
Honda North America Inc. is using Group Michelin's Pax run-flat tire/wheel system as standard equipment on the Touring version of its 2005 Honda Odyssey minivan.
In Europe, the move to run-flat tires is progressing at a faster pace than in North America, and that region could see a high percentage of new vehicles fitted with some type of run-flat system by 2014, according to Bill Hopkins, Goodyear's vice president of global product marketing.
``I've not seen those same kind of statistics in the States, but it's going to happen,'' Mr. Hopkins said. He pointed out that Goodyear expects to sell more than 2 million ``run-on-flat'' units-as Goodyear now calls its run-flats in Europe and Asia-in 2005, more than double its historical sales mark of 1 million units total reached only a couple years ago.
Bridgestone Corp. expects to sell 1 million run-flat units worldwide in 2005, according to Bridgestone/Firestone (BFS) officials. Michelin projects it will sell nearly 500,000 run-flat units globally-about half of them Pax units-while Continental A.G. expects it will sell about 650,000 run-flat tires to OE customers and 300,000 replacement units in 2005, according to European Rubber Journal, a sister publication of Tire Business.
Since OE trends lead the replacement market, many of the major tire makers believe run-flats will proliferate and possibly could replace standard tires. Advancing technology and improved polymers mean that vehicle owners no longer suffer the ``ride quality penalty'' prevalent in the past, and the OEMs ``definitely are embracing'' new run-flat technology, said Mike Filipek, OE account manager for BFS.
A 12-percent gain in trunk space from not needing a spare and jack also is an attractive option for auto makers and another reason tire makers believe fitments will continue to proliferate.
``What we're finding is there's enthusiasm for eliminating spare tires,'' said Don Baldwin, director of technical marketing for Michelin North America's automotive division. ``That's an area of space that the OEMs need. It's an extra part. Even some vehicles like pickup trucks and SUVs are actually having packaging issues on where to put the spare.''
With growing run-flat tire sales in Europe, improved manufacturing processes and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's mandating tire pressure monitoring systems on new vehicles starting in September 2007, Goodyear and BFS officials agreed that dealers need to keep up with the trends.
``You see a few forces coming together that can change this marketplace,'' Mr. Hopkins said of recent trends.
``Dealers do have much to keep up with,'' said Phil Pacsi, BFS's executive director for North American consumer tires brand marketing. ``It's going to be a lot, and it's going to be a challenge for people to keep up with it, and that's why dealers need to be sharp and on their game and make some decisions that they want to attract (run-flat) customers. (Run-flats) are definitely here to stay.''
The Big Three tire makers already have rolled out some type of run-flat certification training for their dealers to help them keep up. BFS will roll out a second round of training this fall and already requires that its dealers be run-flat certified before they can sell run-flats, Mr. Pacsi said. More than 3,800 North American dealers are BFS-certified on run-flat tire technology.
Tire makers are developing several different types of run-flat tires. Some are designed with stiff, heavy, self-supporting sidewalls; other run-flats use the existing drop-center rim with an internal support ring to keep the tire on the wheel.
Michelin's Pax system, designed to allow a tire to go more than 120 miles at 50 mph without air, includes a tire with ``inverted'' beads, a specially designed wheel, a flexible support ring inside the tire and TPMS. Michelin claims the tire never rolls off the rim even after sudden deflation because the beads are locked in place.
When Honda launched the 2005 Odyssey, Michelin trained and certified 1,200 Honda dealers as well as 250 tire dealerships on Pax service, Mr. Baldwin said. The tire maker will add another 250 Pax-servicing locations in the next six months and an additional 500 in six months to a year following that.
Meanwhile, tire makers continue to develop new run-flat products. For the past three to five years, several tire makers have partnered to develop run-flat technology further and create global standards for the tires. Michelin, Goodyear and Pirelli S.p.A. agreed to exchange information on run-flat technology and to offer auto makers multi-supplier deals.
Michelin licensed its Pax tire/wheel system to those companies, Sumitomo Rubber Industries Ltd. and Toyo Tire & Rubber Co. Ltd. and is considering a license for Hankook Tire Co. Inc. as well.
Michelin's and Goodyear's technological joint venture has resulted in the development of a self-supporting version of Pax, Mr. Baldwin said. Auto makers have expressed interest in that Pax configuration, he said, and Michelin believes more Pax OE fitments are on the horizon. Besides the Odyssey, Michelin also will equip in North America the Nissan Quest with Pax and another OE fitment yet to be announced.
Michelin said it believes Pax ultimately will become the industry standard and co-exist with self-supporting tires on standard wheels. ``This is not unlike the transition to radial from bias years and years ago,'' Mr. Baldwin said. ``That was a relatively slow process, too. The market will determine that. We believe the Pax system will be the standard of the future.''
One aspect of the Pax system working against it is weight, according to both Michelin and car makers. The current generation weighs about 20 to 25 percent more than conventional tire/wheel combinations, meaning four mounted Pax tires are about equal to four standard tires plus the spare.
Additionally, none of the tire makers has yet been able to develop a run-flat tire capable of carrying the weight of a sport-utility vehicle or pickup truck, the fastest-growing vehicle segments in North America.
BFS's Mr. Pacsi said he doesn't know if only one run-flat standard will become the industry standard and noted that the International Standards Organization also is trying to establish standards for run-flats.
``Ultimately, the system is going to be driven by what the customers are willing to do or need for their applications,'' Mr. Pacsi said.
While most of the larger tire makers are optimistic about the run-flat's future, at least one is more cautious. Kumho Tire U.S.A. Inc. offers only a self-supporting, run-flat replacement version of its Ecsta MX for the Chevrolet Corvette but is not really pushing the technology at this time, said Guy Edington, managing director of Kumho's technical center in Akron.
Mr. Edington said Kumho is watching the market and noted that it's still moving slowly toward run-flats because of some tradeoffs, including ride quality, higher prices and the difficulty in producing them.
``The tires are noticeably harsher riding, so the vehicle needs to be tuned for that,'' Mr. Edington said. ``It has improved, but it's nowhere near the ride of a conventional tire. From the standpoint of the OE companies, they like run-flats, but they have to deal with the increase in the mass of the tire.''
Kumho is taking a ``wait and see approach'' to see which run-flat standard is embraced by the marketplace, he added.
Mr. Hopkins said that 98-99 percent of the run-flat tire market is self-supporting technology and probably will stay that way for the next few years, but that doesn't mean the Pax system doesn't have its place.
``The fundamental technology of self-supporting (tires) is going to be there because it does support a very wide range of products,'' Mr. Hopkins said. ``As you get into large sport-utility vehicles, large pickup trucks, you're going to need another technology to give you run-flat performance. There's no question in my mind that that will be required. The basic physics of self-supporting tires can't do that job.
``You'll see a portfolio of products evolve from the self-supporting system that we know today to some type of internal support device like the Pax system,'' he added.
Sumitomo also has its Pax projects underway for Japanese OEMs even though right now it has no run-flat brand in the marketplace, according to Richard Pearl, vice president of sales and marketing at Sumitomo Corp. of America. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. also is developing a run-flat product and will launch it ``when the market dictates it's ready,'' a spokeswoman said.
Toyo, like Kumho, is taking a wait-and-see approach to the run-flat market, according to Travis Roffler, senior director of marketing for Toyo Tire (U.S.A.) Corp. The tire maker is developing its own self-supporting run-flat tire for the U.S. replacement market that likely will be launched during the first half of 2006, he said. The tire will fit select vehicles. Toyo's Pax license is only for Japan's domestic tire market, he added.
Continental A.G., Bridgestone and Yokohama Rubber Co. Ltd. also have been working together to develop run-flat technology: one being a self-supporting tire and the other is a support ring system.
Yokohama said it believes the market requires two different technologies for UHP applications with low-profile tires and standard passenger tire applications with higher sidewall sizes, said Art Michalik, director of marketing communications for Fullerton, Calif.-based Yokohama Tire Corp. He said Yokohama thinks UHP run-flat tires need sidewall reinforcement technology and noted the tire maker has a couple of replacement products available now for Lexus and Corvette.
For standard passenger applications, Mr. Michalik said Yokohama and Conti are working together on a support ring system, which the two companies think is the best system for the market right now. Neither company now has a support ring product in the North American marketplace.
* * *
Projected 2005 run-flat sales
(globally, in units)
* Goodyear: 2 million-plus
* Bridgestone Corp.: 1 million
* Continental A.G.: 950,000*
* Group Michelin: 500,000*
*Source: European Rubber Journal