AKRON — The tire industry needs to continue to adapt as autonomous and electric vehicles become more popular, according to Jim Popio, vice president of operations in North America for Smithers Rapra.
Mr. Popio focused on developments driven in the automotive industry by ACES, or autonomous, connected, electric and shared vehicles in his presentation, "3 Key Automotive Trends and What it Means for Tires," at the International Tire Exhibition & Conference in Akron Sept. 11-13.
New vehicle types, as a key trend, are introducing new challenges for tire manufacturers, including dealing with additional weight in particular, he said.
"A Tesla is 700 pounds heavier than a Honda Accord," he said. "These cars, they weigh a lot. That means that tires are going to have to carry more load."
Electric vehicles also are quicker off the line, with the additional torque "ripping some rubber off of those tires," he said. Tires for electric vehicles will need to be even more efficient, providing longer range and less rolling resistance. Electric vehicles also mean additional cabin noise, which tires will need to play a part in solving.
"How does all of this affect vehicle handling?" Mr. Popio asked. "I'm guessing if there's more weight in the back,…what's it mean for cargo loads and entire performance?"
With additional load capacity and other challenges, tire manufacturers will have to look at things like the car's contact patch. An EV might need a larger one, Popio said. Going to thin, narrow tires might mean they spin more, which would run counter to the high efficiency goals of the EV.
Autonomous vehicles present additional questions, as they have to run on public roads and avoid collisions while following traffic rules, he said. According to market research, 70 million Level 3 (vehicles requiring a human driver but with some safety functions shifted to the car) vehicles will be on the road by 2030. By the same time frame, about 30 million Level 4 vehicles will be in use, which are fully autonomous in most driving scenarios. About 5 million Level 5, or fully autonomous vehicles, are expected. There are no current federal regulations governing autonomous vehicles.
Tires for autonomous vehicles would need to be more durable and also have more load-carrying capacity as well, as they're likely to also be electric vehicles, Mr. Popio said. Occupants might miss sensory cues of impending tire problems, removed from the actual act of driving, and the vehicle would need the capability to sense it. The tires also would need to sense environment feedback and manage a comfortable ride by mitigating "turbulence" on a bumpy road.
Autonomous vehicles will need tires with sensor properties in addition to being able to check pressure and temperature, Popio said. Those tires also will need to be able to be compatible with multiple vehicle interfaces from different manufacturers, as consumers replace original equipment manufacturer tires during the vehicle's lifetime.
"Is the interface going to be the same? Are you going to be able to plug any tire in there?" he asked. "How is the vehicle going to know what to do? How are we going to handle compatibility issues?"
New business models, another key trend, will shape the tire industry going forward, Mr. Popio said. Ride-hailing services such as Uber or Lyft, remain popular, with double-digit growth year over year. Ride sharing services — where a customer can rent a vehicle, use it and return it — are less popular but are still being used. Another new approach is a subscription model, where a customer subscribes to a class of vehicle, and trades individual vehicles for use according to the day's needs.
In all three cases, the tire industry will see change, as dealer networks become less useful and direct relationships with automotive companies become more common, Popio said. As car ownership is less common, a fleet mentality might be a regular approach, where the individual brand of the tire might not matter.
One of the top charges the tire industry will see with this trend is a push for durability, similar to the trucking industry, Mr. Popio said. Additionally, automotive companies look for tires with increased tread wear, fuel efficiency and low cost, as brand awareness becomes less important.
Sustainable material development makes up a third key trend, especially as global markets and social dynamics continue to change, Mr. Popio told the ITEC audience.
"With urbanization, people are moving back to the cities," he said. "The future's not clear, and we must consider all of the possible scenarios. Tires, are they going to continue to get more and more commoditized, or, as I said a number of years ago, are we going to make them sexy?"
With a push for cleaner emissions and vehicles with smaller carbon footprints, the electric vehicle market and the hybrid electric vehicle market is poised to continue growth, Popio said. Countries like Germany are committed to eliminating the internal combustion engine by 2030, and companies like Volkswagen are "moving away from the dirty air problem they had a few years ago" with new electric offerings.
The tire industry is additionally being affected by trade issues, such as tariffs on steel and other materials, Popio said. Oil and raw materials prices also are moving.
But instead of waiting for automotive manufacturers to react to movements in the industry, tire manufacturers should already be making changes, Mr. Popio said.
"Maybe we can get ahead of this curve and be a bit more proactive with these tires," he said. "Maybe we need to tell the vehicle industry, 'This is what we're going to do,' rather than have them say, 'We need this.' Because I think the tires are always taken for granted.
"At the end of the day, the emergence of electric vehicles, these new automotive technologies … these new business models, we're going to need to adapt to them."
Tire companies shouldn't wait for vehicle manufacturers to look at ways to incorporate new technologies effectively, regardless of what type of vehicle is coming to future consumers, he said.
"What do customers really want? Car companies don't always tell. Some folks think about the tires, but many don't," he said. "But without a tire, you're not going anywhere."