Fuel efficiency is the holy grail of the tire industry today as tire makers compete with each other to design products with ever lower rolling resistance.
But 30 years ago, the recently introduced all-season tire was all the rage, eliminating consumers' semi-annual tradition of switching between winter and summer tires.
"One of the game changers, especially in North America in the tire industry over the last 30 years...was the advent of all-season tires," said Bob Toth, Goodyear's director of product and innovation. "It was a cultural shift, an attitude shift. There were summer and winter tires—regular tires and winter tires and that was it. The all-season tire has changed the complexion of the tire industry today in North America."
But there were other innovations that changed the tire industry landscape as well, according to several tire industry veterans Tire Business interviewed. And all the ground-breaking products the tire industry developed over the past three decades can tip their collective hat to the greatest innovation of all—the computer, which was just starting to show up in offices and on desktops in the early 1980s.
"Like most industries, the use of computers has changed everything about building and retreading tires," said Kevin Rohlwing, senior vice president of training for the Tire Industry Association (TIA).
"Thirty years ago, each new tread design on a tire had to be designed and then carved out by hand in order to be tested on a track. All of that labor and trial and error is now done with computer design and simulations, so the time it takes to introduce new tread designs has been drastically reduced.
"Likewise, automation and computerization have had a positive impact on the quality of tires and retreads. The consistency of today's machines have led to more uniform products because every tire is built the exact same way or every casing is buffed to the same diameter with the correct radius, without exception. The quality has significantly improved over the past 30 years and computers have allowed designers and engineers to revolutionize the way that tires go from concept to finished product."
With all things being equal, "today's tire probably is better than the tire of 30 years ago, in general," said Hank Hara, chief technology officer for Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations.
Tire rolling resistance has been reduced by about 50 percent since 1983, he said, without sacrificing other performance parameters, such as braking distance. In 1983, passenger vehicles typically got 16 miles with a gallon of gas; today it's not unusual for a vehicle to get 30 mpg, he said.
Computerization also has enabled the second- and third-tier tire makers to improve their tire quality and compete with larger brands, said Mr. Rohlwing, noting that car makers are not as concerned about the name on the sidewall any more as long as the tire can meet their performance requirements.
On the downside, tire size proliferation has become the bane of tire dealerships over the past three decades.
Mr. Hara noted that, based on Tire & Rim Association figures, the number of passenger and light truck tire sizes has increased to 799 this year from 150 in 1983.
Mr. Toth blamed the auto makers for the proliferation of bigger wheels, lower aspect ratios and speed ratings. "Some of those things, such as the bigger wheels, were driven by the original equipment manufacturers' observance of consumers liking bigger wheels for the styling aspect. But the other ones, like lower aspect ratio sizes...accommodate bigger rotors for the disc brakes. They made the vehicle handle better and stop and start better," he said.
"Proliferation is one of the things we pull our hair out over," said Ron Margadonna, senior technical marketing manager for Michelin North America Inc., adding, "It's going to continue to plague us."
According to the tire industry veterans, these are some of the significant advances in tire technology over the past 30 years:
All-season tires—Goodyear, which introduced the first all-season in the U.S., the Goodyear Tiempo, in 1977, unveiled a high-performance version of the all- season tire in the mid 1980s.
"Since that time the tires, the technology, the compromise between full-fledged summer and a full-fledged winter in an all-season tire—there had to be some compromise somewhere—the compromise is being diminished every year and in every new product that comes out," Goodyear's Mr. Toth said.
As all-seasons took root in the market, the automotive industry began introducing front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, traction control, anti-lock braking systems and other traction features.
"All of those things played into maximizing the traction of the tire, which even made all-season tires more feasible, more realistic," Mr. Toth said. "They were mutually beneficial technologies that evolved and complimented each other and changed the way we think about tires."
But there always has been a market for dedicated winter tires in the northern regions of North America, and the technology for winter traction also has made significant advancements, according to Mr. Margadonna.
Thirty years ago winter tires tended to be designed with high-void lugs in the shoulder. In the mid '90s, winter tire design changed to using lateral sipes across the tread, which Mr. Margadonna said is more effective in providing biting edges for traction on snow and ice.
Run-flat tires—Goodyear also introduced the first extended mobility, or run-flat, tire commercially as an OE option for the Chevrolet Corvette in 1992, according to Mr. Toth, although tire makers had been working on the concept for decades. And it may take a few more decades for run-flats to become more commonplace.
"Slowly but surely since 1993, it's starting to take root. Run-flats are becoming a reality," Mr. Toth said, adding, "I don't know if the current run-flat is the final technology, either. That technology continues to evolve and the ride gets better, the durability and traction get better. And the run-flat capability gets better. So it continues to grow."
The industry observers agree that auto makers are trying to eventually eliminate the spare tire to make vehicles lighter and provide more room for other passenger amenities.
Fuel-efficient tires—The overwhelming focus of OEMs that has impacted tire technology this century has been the drive to increase vehicle fuel efficiency, forced on them by federal regulations, particularly CAFE (corporate average fuel efficiency) requirements.
Fuel efficiency always has been an OEM-driven requirement, not a consumer-backed feature, the experts agree.
Ironically, Goodyear made its first attempt at capitalizing on fuel efficiency back in 1916, according to Mr. Toth, recalling an ad for the Goodyear Cord tires that touted the tire as "cutting down on the nation's fuel bill." But the tire concept was offered at a time "when fuel was cheaper than milk," he said, "and the consumer didn't bite. So that failed."
Later the tire maker introduced the Goodyear GFE (Greater Fuel Economy) and it failed due to lack of consumer interest, he said. But due to recent federal fuel-efficiency requirements on auto makers and rising gas prices, fuel-efficient tires are slowly gaining consumer interest.
"Fuel efficiency is suddenly very, very important. So that is a technology that has suddenly come into the spotlight in the tire industry. And the technology, while it's been evolving for years and years and years, now it's actually resonating with consumers as an important consideration," Mr. Toth said.
Customers, however, are more interested in traction and longer mileage in their tires, the industry experts agreed.
"Our customers do not understand really what rolling resistance is. It's a very technical concept in the tire industry," Mr. Hara said. "But once they experience that the lower rolling resistance tire improves fuel economy, they understand the tire is a key component."
Consumers may not have a choice in acceptance in the future as OEMs are now driven to meet CAFE vehicle requirements of 54.5 mpg by 2025.
"From a technology point of view, the OEMs have, do and will continue to strive for that excellence in rolling resistance and that is probably the number one thing that all of us as tire makers face as we homologate products there," Mr. Margadonna said. c
Improved materials—An important factor in the development of fuel-efficient tires has been the use of silica as a reinforcement material in tires, according to Mr. Margadonna. "Silica became a prominent reinforcement. We started using it at Michelin in the early '90s, and one of the significant things we introduced in 1992 was the Green X concept." The use of silica reduced the trade-off between carbon black and traction, he said.
"Silica is one key technology that broke through that trade off, so you were able to maintain traction while at the same time getting the rolling resistance. Silica is in every one of our products today. So I would say silica being born right around the early "90s has a 20-year legacy, at least with Michelin. And I think you'll find many of our competitors are using it, too."
Goodyear's Mr. Toth agreed. "Some of the things that make run-flat and fuel-efficiency possible is the evolution of construction materials and design reinforcement materials and compounding, belt wire, cap plies, multi-zone treads, modeling," he said. "The technologies that really make those kinds of products, those categories of products possible, come from the evolving evolution of reinforcement materials and compounding."
"The tires are more or less serviced the same way, so the computer revolution that changed the way tires and retreads were built hasn't really impacted the technicians who mount and install them. But vehicle technology has definitely made it more complicated on the automotive side, especially with TPMS (tire pressure monitoring systems)," TIA's Mr. Rohlwing said.
"When I first started changing tires 30 years ago, most vehicles had steel rims with wheel covers or hub caps, which are easily changed with minimal training, The introduction of aluminum and alloy wheels slowed down the process because you had to take extra time to avoid scratching the rims. We weren't worried about torque and most tire shops (but not ours) still plugged tires.
"Each step of the process takes a lot more time today because there are so many more steps and procedures that the technician must understand. Vehicles have lift points, torque specifications and relearn procedures that need to be followed on every vehicle and that requires more training and tools/- equipment," Mr. Rohlwing said.
A major impact on tire service in the 1980s was the near elimination of seasonal tire changes, thanks to the advent of the all-season tire "to the chagrin of tire dealers," noted Mr. Toth, adding, "...even today there are dealers who are strong in winter tires who don't particularly like the tire industry overselling all-season tires."
Run-flat tires and inflator kits now have reduced the need for roadside tire changes, while improved tire materials have made tires more durable.
"Those new materials have reduced impact failures, punctures and increased the life of tires," Mr. Toth said. "We complain about the cost of a tire,...but when you compare how long a tire lasts today vs. what it did 30 years ago, and the cost today vs. 30 years ago, I think you'll find out today's tire is cheaper per mile than it was 30 years ago."
The improvement in tire longevity has increased the need for consistent tire rotations and proper puncture repairs, Mr. Toth said. "And the reason I say that is because if you put four tires on the vehicle and the tires are going to wear out in 25,000 miles, by the time they severely need rotated they're worn out, they're done.
"But if the tire is going to be on there 60,000, 80,000, or 100,000 miles, if you put that left front tire on and you leave it on there for 80,000 miles, it's going to start to look like its been on the left front position (due to caster and camber wear). You've got to move it around if it's going to be on that vehicle for that duration of time."
The importance of proper tire repair, involving inner liner tire patches and inspections, has increased with the advent of speed ratings and higher performing tires, the tire makers noted.
OEM demands for more electronics, such as TPMS, and styling, such as lower profile tires and aluminum wheels, has required the aftermarket to upgrade its tools.
"Vehicle technology has spawned the entire fields of TPMS diagnostic/relearn tools and 'rim clamp' tire changing machines," Mr. Rohlwing noted. "Every retailer needs a TPMS tool and a 'rim clamp' tire changing machine in order to survive in today's industry. Changes in vehicle technology are the sole reason."
As tire makers competed to introduce innovative products over the past 30 years, there were some ideas that sounded good in concept but flopped in the marketplace.
Mr. Toth recalled the development—and demise—of the elliptic tire, which, as its name implied, featured the natural stress-free shape of a sidewall of a tire, using a 390 mm wheel instead of a 15-inch wheel. It worked well as a fuel-saving tire, he said, but it didn't sell well because it didn't make sense to consumers.
Rotation-free tires for pickup trucks also flopped. Tire designers created heavier load-bearing tires for the front axle and lesser weight bearing, essentially trailer, tires for the rear. The technology worked, Mr. Toth insisted, but the concept was thwarted by consumers who took the application-specific rear tires and put them on all four positions.
Derivatives of run-flats have come and gone over the years. Both Good-year and Michelin worked on and later abandoned developing the complicated and expensive PAX run-flat tire-and-wheel system.
"There's been lots of run-flat approaches that have been taken over the years that have gone by the wayside or on their way to the wayside," Mr. Toth said. "Currently the runflat, as we know it, is a specially constructed reinforced tire that basically carries the load at zero inflation pressure for a period of time and at a specified speed."
Various types of tire sealants, as a run-flat alternative, "have come and gone, come and gone and come and gone," Mr. Toth noted. While they are used in commercial tires, sealants have not yet found widespread acceptance in consumer tires.
"I wouldn't write it off yet," he added. "I think there is still a future for sealants."
Several companies also have dabbled with adding colors to tires, but the concept never took off for various reasons, according to Messrs. Toth and Margadonna.
"First of all, you can't offer enough colors to match every desire," Mr. Toth said. "Secondly, even if you tried, the SKU nightmare you would have created turns into a monstrosity. If the color is more like a temporary tattoo, that's no good because it stains or gets stuck or rubs off. So the idea of making color a parameter that allows us to market tires that are a little different or put logos on tires, it hasn't really culminated.... And the one color that has resonated over the past years, white sidewalls, is on the decline."
One thing is certain about the future of tire development—it largely will be driven by the desires of the auto makers. And fuel efficiency will be the main focus of the automotive industry for the foreseeable future.
OEMs will continue to look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint, improve fuel economy and use recycled materials, as well as differentiate their vehicles from other brands, Bridgestone's Mr. Hara predicted.
The biggest trend is fuel economy at the behest of the federal government. Michelin's Mr. Margadonna expects tire makers will be focusing on advancements in tire materials and compounds to meet those demands.
'There may be a next wave of generation to even lower rolling resistance. We may see more material compounds for winter tires that have more grip capabilities," he said. As the CAFE requirements deadline approaches in 2025, the OEMs will be looking to the tire makers for more ideas. "We're going to have to depend more on materials to get there," he said.
"I expect the tire and retread manufacturing processes to become much greener over the next 10 years," TIA's Mr. Rohlwing predicted. "The technology in the process itself is incredibly advanced and I don't know how much more juice the industry can squeeze from compounding and design. But the reliance on natural and synthetic rubber will continue to be the Achilles' heel for the tire industry until alternatives are discovered.
"So I expect future advances in technology will be related to making the processes sustainable and environmentally responsible. I hope to see more technology in recycling because I know there is a lot more that can be done in that area, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen."
Mr. Toth expects to see more telematics in vehicles. "I think you're going to see a lot more electronics in tires. If nothing else, electronics in tires that remind you when it's time to rotate or that tell you, look you don't need to rotate your tires at the regular interval because they're wearing beautifully."
The tire makers also are working on noise suppression technology—tread designs and components to reduce noise and vibration, inside and outside the vehicle.
With all the advancements in technology and electronics on the horizon, investment in education and tools will become even more important for tire dealerships.
"As the tire becomes more sophisticated and does more than just keep the car off the ground, the tire buster, as we called them in the past, is going to be a technician. And they are already technicians in today's world," Mr. Toth said. "But the importance of that individual in terms of his education, his ability to program, will generally elevate the tire to a more sophisticated role in the automobile and therefore the maintenance person.... It's not going to happen overnight, we're going to evolve."
Mr. Rohlwing noted that most tire dealerships that have survived today have already invested in updated tools and training. "But they are still going to have to reinvest in tools, equipment and training in order to service the new vehicles 10 years from now because tires are becoming a smaller percentage of total sales," he said.
"I think dealers will be more challenged to probably make sure they communicate well with the consumers on these technology advancements to make sure they are aligned and benefit the consumers particularly when there is some segmentation of choices," Mr. Margadonna said.
"I think its going to be a requirement that the dealers communicate and be able to explain fully to the consumers what they probably researched" on the Internet.