With technology advancing at an ever-increasing rate in the trucking industry, it's no surprise things are moving quickly in all areas of commercial truck tires, too.
In the past, fleets have been interested in improving tire performance, especially in the areas of tread mileage, casing durability and traction in an effort to reduce their tire cost per mile.
In addition, in the past 20 years tire manufacturers have put a greater emphasis on reducing rolling resistance to improve fuel economy. In 2000, Group Michelin introduced a generation of wide-base tires whose purpose was not to carry heavy steer-axle loads but to reduce vehicle weight and rolling resistance on axles that normally use dual tires, changes that result in improvements in fuel economy.
Further efforts to reduce rolling resistance in standard tires have been driven by programs such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) SmartWay program, which was introduced in 2004.
But what's ahead for truck tires?
Are we going to see new innovations in truck tires like we saw when tire construction moved from bias to radial in the 1970s; or when standard-profile tires were eclipsed by low-profile tires in the 1980s; or when the latest wide-base tires arrived with the new millennium?
How are truck design and aerodynamics affecting tire development?
What impact are low-cost imports having on tire development and the truck tire market? What's trending now?
In two words — a lot.
In order to optimize tire performance for commercial truck tire customers, tire manufacturers have been designing tires specifically for the operations in which they work.
There is a significant difference between high-speed, line-haul service (500-mile runs) and mixed service (on/off road) and local, pick-up-and-delivery (P&D) service. In addition, regional service (250-mile runs or less) has become a relatively new service category for which tires are specifically designed.
Special tread rubber and sidewall compounds that are resistant to cuts, stone drilling and other abrasion injuries are features of mixed-service tires along with thicker sidewall gauges and deeper tread patterns that enhance traction and extend casing life by preventing belt and ply-cord injuries.
However, tires for high-speed, line-haul applications require lower rolling-resistance compounds, slower-wearing, quieter and more irregular wear-resistant tread patterns that are compatible with softer riding and dampened air-suspension systems on drive and trailing axles.
There is a move away from high-tread-depth tires toward lower tread depths with better engineering and compounds that will produce lower rolling resistance with additional mileage.
Urban tires, also known as P&D tires, require sidewall protection from curbs and road debris, treads that accommodate sharp turns and longer- wearing tread compounds.
Fleets also are using trucks in a wider operating environment, a trend due largely to the ongoing driver shortage and an increase in vehicle utilization.
Trucks that typically would travel a long-haul route now are making stops along the way in a manner more suited to a regional operation. Because of this, truck tires must work across several environments and have multiple performance characteristics, including long wear, fuel efficiency and durability.
Therefore, all-position tires with additional load-carrying capacities are becoming more common.
As in the past several years, we will continue to see tire manufacturers offer more sophisticated, application-specific tires with high-performance features such as greater fuel economy and longer tread wear.
This will help Tier 1 and 2 manufacturers hold on to their market share and defend their premium prices against low-cost competition by introducing new features and new levels of performance to the market.
One of the vehicle trends impacting truck tires is that new trucks are being built with a higher front-axle rating of 14,200 pounds as a result of the heavier engines and their accompanying emission packages that mitigate pollution.
Up until now, steer tires have had predominantly 14-ply casings to carry at most 12,000 pounds on the axle, but with the heavier axle rating, 16-ply-rated tires are now required on these trucks.
Also tire companies are concentrating on finding a way to extend mileage by reducing irregular wear (something that never seems to end).
Sustainability (which means having minimal effect on the environment) has never been more emphasized than now. Many tire manufacturers are focused on making tires more sustainable with designs that improve fuel economy by reducing tire weight and rolling resistance.
It used to be when trying to make advancements in one aspect of a tire, such as rolling resistance, the raw materials and/or equipment available would make it necessary to sacrifice another area of the tire's performance, such as traction or tread mileage.
However, advancements are being made in raw materials and manufacturing processes that have enabled manufacturers to improve multiple attributes of a tire without sacrificing other attributes.
Michelin recently announced it has a plan in place to ensure that by 2048 all of its tires will be manufactured using 80-percent sustainable materials, and 100 percent of all tires will be recycled. Because there are significant differences and challenges between truck tires and passenger tires, Michelin noted that it will take longer for commercial truck tires to meet this goal.
At the same time, Michelin is working with third-party partners to make synthetic elastomers from biomass such as wood, straw or beets and micronized rubber powders (MRP) from recycled tires that replace oil and rubber-based feedstocks that deliver performance without compromising other qualities.
Longer term, manufacturers are preparing for the EPA's Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Phase 2 rolling-resistance requirements, which are scheduled to begin in 2021.
This is driving greater demand for tires that go beyond basic SmartWay verification. Retread system providers are working to reduce rolling resistance in their products, too.
By educating fleet users on the better performance of high-quality retreads, their lower rolling resistance and the ability to retread premium casings multiple times, retreaders are beginning to overcome the attraction of low-cost imported tires.
Fleets also are demanding long treadwear to go along with fuel efficiency. Tier 1 companies are introducing a generation of manufacturing technologies that they can use to build more advanced tires.
There is a growing trend to use nanotechnology (the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular and supramolecular scale) to reduce irregular wear and improve treadwear.
More effort is going into modeling and compounding with nano-polymers and sophisticated filler and cure systems used to maximize fuel savings as well as maintaining treadwear, grip, low heat build-up and other key characteristics. These efforts will continue after SmartWay and GHG Phase 2 targets have been achieved.
Perhaps one of the biggest trends in commercial truck tires is the move to "connected" tires through advanced communications and technology that centers on "smart" tires and maintenance-system connectivity.
Smart tires are being designed and engineered to give feedback to the fleet manager as well as the tire manufacturers. Sensors will communicate tire pressure, load and temperature of the cavity and more accurately measure tire wear in the coming years.
This information will be sent to databases most likely in the cloud and can be used to optimize tire rotation, ensure correct pressures are maintained and also understand the relationship between vehicle speed, heat build-up, tire wear and fuel consumption.
Continental Tires the Americas already has introduced ContiPressureCheck TPMS and ContiConnect, its new digital tire monitoring platform for commercial fleets.
Although achieved by other private technology companies such as TireStamp Inc., this marks a tire company's first live monitoring and transmission of real-time information 24/7 from trucks to the fleet, which is the key to capitalizing on the capabilities of advanced communications with "connected" tires.
All Tier 1 tire manufacturers are testing or have released RFID-equipped smart tires for commercial fleets. Smart tires have radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that provide a unique number for the tire in which it is installed. This helps with tire tracking, inventory control and asset distribution.
One of the challenges of using sensors in tires is getting them to endure the retreading process with its high levels of heat and pressure.
Cost also is a critical issue and perhaps the biggest one affecting the widespread use of sensors and RFIDs. As we all know, costs drop when technology is implemented on a large scale. The same is expected to be the case for tire RFIDs and tire sensors in the future.
In the meantime, several tire manufacturers are focusing on fleet-support services and tire-management programs that use cloud-based platforms to store tire performance and inventory data.
Digital tools are used to collect data manually and send it automatically to the cloud, where it is processed immediately and reports generated that provide effective customer service.
The ultimate goal of all of this technology and innovation is that data analytics will be used to prove the superior tire performance that will be provided by advanced truck tires, and tire service will be optimized to maximize tire performance.
However, some tire manufacturers are going way beyond this. Michelin is looking at developing services and solutions for any need that is "beyond tires," so it is looking at products and/or services for which there is a void in the industry.
Last year it acquired NexTraq, a leading provider of GPS-based management systems geared to small fleets (up to 50 vehicles) that operate Class 3-5 trucks. While this is a telematics solution, Michelin is looking at more than digital products.
This year it brought out its "simple and durable" Energy Guard trailer aerodynamic package that consists of a trailer skirt, trailer-end fairings, aerodynamic mud flaps and a wake reducer tab at the rear that eliminates the need for a typical "boat tail" that drivers must deploy and close up when required.
This system operates without the driver doing anything to activate it. Who knows what they'll bring out next.
A big factor that is changing the commercial truck tire market is the strong economy and the booming trucking industry that we are seeing this year. The OE truck and trailer market is setting production records and sucking up loads of tires.
In addition, fleets are trying to keep every truck they have on the road hauling freight, so demand for tires is high in both the replacement truck tire channel and the OEM channel.
To better compete in North America, another trend we are seeing is foreign tire producers building factories and establishing sales and distribution networks in North America to compete head to head with Tier 1 and 2 tire manufacturers.
Giti Tire Group is launching the Giti commercial truck tire brand in North America with a full portfolio of products designed for urban, mixed duty, regional and long-haul applications. While these tires will still be produced in China, Giti's R&D center in Richburg, S.C., enables it to focus on specific service requirements for its North American customers.
While Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., a domestic tire manufacturer, has had its line of Roadmaster truck tires produced in China for years, it just launched a lineup of Cooper-branded truck tires designed for long-haul, regional, vocational and severe-service applications, too.
The Cooper-brand tires are aimed specifically at fleets, while the Roadmaster tires will continue to be targeted toward owner-operators. Cooper will use its existing network for sales, distribution and support.
Last year Pirelli Tyre debuted Pirelli- and Formula-brand truck/bus tires under its TP Commercial Solutions business — now part of the Prometeon Tyre Group business that was spun off in mid-2017.
While the Pirelli tire lineup is not complete, it's only a matter of time before Prometeon introduces tires for every truck and bus market segment and rounds out its truck tire sales and support team.
This trend is bound to continue as the North American commercial truck tire market continues to expand and as foreign manufacturers build corporate offices and customer support networks here to grow their truck tire sales and avoid tariffs.
As technology advances, tire companies will keep finding ways to improve truck tire performance, lower the total cost of ownership to their commercial customers and capitalize on the challenges the truck tire market presents.
Peggy can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].