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Tyre analysis: Roll on the revolution

Date: 09 November 2016   |   Author: Tom Webster

The tyre has remained largely unchanged for decades. It's hard to justify radical changes to a concept that performs a specific function and does it well, even as cars have altered drastically around them.
While there have been advancements in tread patterns, composition and size, the tyre has retained the same fundamental design, and raw materials, throughout the majority of its lifetime.

But the tyre is finally seemingly about to undergo a revolution of its own. Not only is the tyre of the future set to be able to talk to both the car and the user, but it could even move away from a reliance on traditional rubber. And although these changes might not be around in the life cycle of the current cars on fleet, there are plenty of other advancements that will be worth considering before you opt for the same again the next time you come to replace the rubber.

Intelligent tyres

Since 2014, all cars have come equipped with an element of tyre intelligence, as every new model sold has been legally required to have a tyre pressure monitoring system (TPMS), but this is just the start, according to Steve Howat, Continental's general manager, technical services.

"There is no reason tyre sensors can't be used to measure temperature and wear, and that is one of the focal points moving forward - an intelligent tyre that provides information and works for the owner," he says.

Continental is by no means the only company predicting such technology is on its way, with the likes of Bridgestone and Falken also expecting it to arrive. Jamie McWhir, technical manager at Michelin, admits it is not yet confirmed exactly how tread depth sensors will work, but suggests "there are various ways to do it - you could integrate a wire that is exposed when the tyre wears to a certain level, or you can work it out based on the weight of the tyre".

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A tyre wear sensor is one that could bring varied benefits to a fleet looking to keep on top of its duty of care. It would reduce reliance on drivers checking their tyres and remove the need for a regular manual inspection of a fleet. Information could also be transmitted to a phone app, or a central system, and could provide data on how the tyres have been used and whether they have suffered any damage that might not be visible to the human eye.

"Fleet managers could find out what the driver has been doing and get information that is particular to the tyre," Matt Smith, UK director for Falken Tyres, tells BusinessCar. "The system could give reports on the integrity of the tyre, how many kerbs it has been up, and whether it has been damaged by potholes."

However, the challenge is making the systems small and robust enough without compromising affordability. "If it puts £20 onto the cost of a tyre, no fleet is going to buy it," says McWhir. Any system that is offered will be one that can be easily mass-produced, but still brings benefits. While the technology exists in some form in heavy lorries, and in motorsport such as Formula E, it is not expected to be offered in passenger cars for another five to 10 years.

Alternative materials

Another advancement in the world of tyres is one that is less likely to have a big impact on fleets' daily operation but could revolutionise the manufacturing process. With the tyre industry reliant on materials that stem from a limited source, alternatives that could further supplement the natural and fossil fuel-derived rubbers in a tyre are being investigated.

Dunlop already makes the fossil fuel-free Enasave, although it is not offered for sale in the UK, while Continental is investigating a product that could remove the reliance on natural rubber sourced from the rubber tree. Taraxagum is made using materials from the dandelion plant and Continental is investing ?35m in its development.

As the dandelion produces the necessary materials that can be grown in a variety of different environments, Taraxagum could reduce the overall carbon footprint of tyres by reducing transport costs and increasing the number of places where it can be grown. Continental has started buying land in the Baltics to grow the plant, for example. In the longer term, this could even have a positive impact on the cost of tyres.

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"Because of the way natural rubber is sold on the commodities market the price can go up and down, and that can cause us challenges," says Howat. "Logically speaking it should reduce the cost of the tyres, but it may add complexity to the process, so we don't know yet. It may be more costly to process compounds with Taraxagum in them."

The material is still in development at the moment, but Continental says that it is likely to be something that will play a part in the composition of a tyre rather than replacing natural rubber entirely. "It will probably still be a blend for the moment while we still learn how it works," says Howat. This learning process is expected to continue for a few years yet, but a passenger car tyre made using Taraxagum could be on the market within five to 10 years.

Mid-term future

There is a greater degree of certainty about the sort of technology that we can expect in the UK in the medium term, as it already exists elsewhere in the world. Falken's parent company, Sumitomo, also makes the likes of Dunlop and Goodyear, and the relative newcomer is set to pass on some of the technical advancements from its sister companies.

This could see a self-sealing tyre, which repairs punctures caused by foreign objects such as nails. The technology is already offered on Goodyear's commercial vehicle range, but could also be added to Falken's UK line-up as the company looks to expand its appeal to the fleet market in the coming years. A self-sealing tyre could reduce the need for repairs, something of particular benefit to fleets that drive regularly on sites with a high risk of causing punctures.

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For those that want a more traditional run-flat tyre, Bridgestone's new DriveGuard technology make it possible to upgrade a fleet today, even on cars where it wasn't originally fitted.

"It is not restricted to factory fitment," says Farrell Dolan, Bridgestone's sales and marketing director, north region. "So long as your vehicle has a TPMS you can fit DriveGuard to it."

The product was originally aimed at the retail market when it was launched in April 2016, but Dolan says that fleets are the next target.

"Rather than go to fleets with their high expectations, first we tried to set our stall out with the right dealers on board," he says. "Fleet customers in the UK want to see it is readily available, that it's in multiple channels, and is accessible."

With DriveGuard now offered in 19 sizes - up from the original 10 - it is set to make its attempt to break into the fleet market in 2017, with hire car fleets just one area being targeted on the basis that it allows opportunities for upselling to customers.

Some advancements, such as Falken's Silent Core, are about improving the driving experience rather than saving money or reducing downtime. These tyres feature an ether-polyurethane foam layer on the inside of the tyre's carcass, which absorbs sound and decreases noise by up to four decibels in the cabin and 10 decibels outside. The foam layer absorbs the vibrations of the air in the tyre, and is planned to go into production within two to three years, according to Falken's Smith.

Wishful thinking

Despite some fairly major advancements in the pipeline for tyres, some things are set to remain the same. It's unlikely, for example, that a tyre capable of lasting the lifetime of a car will ever be made.

"Rubber is an organic polymer and it oxidises and splits over time, like brake and radiator hoses," says Michelin's McWhir. "You are never going to get a tyre that lasts forever."

Continental agrees, with Steve Howat saying: "We could fundamentally design a tyre that offers ridiculous mileages but that is at the expense of other requirements: wet grip, dry handling etc." That is a compromise that the manufacturers are not willing to make on grounds of safety, so expect to keep changing tyres periodically.

Michelin has taken a large step towards reducing the number of times you need to switch tyres, though, with the CrossClimate tyre, which performs well in the snow but retains enough durability to stand up to use in the summer. The new tyres impressed sufficiently to take top spot in the Innovation category in the 2016 BusinessCar Techies Awards. The range is set to undergo an improvement in the coming months, too, with the release of CrossClimate+, which was announced at the recent Paris motor show. Thanks to a tweak to its design, CrossClimate+ is said to offer a greater level of cold-weather grip as the tyre wears. It will be rolled out across the various sizes from the start of 2017.

There will be plenty of choice for those that still want to use specialist tyres for specific conditions, with Farrell Dolan saying that Bridgestone is likely to keep offering a summer and winter tyre rather than putting an all-season offering centre stage: "With an all-season tyre there is always some level of compromise and whether it fits their driving conditions," he says.

But of these changes, perhaps the one that is most likely to have a tangible impact on day-to-day running costs is a very small one, and one that fleets will have little to no say on. Several companies are predicting that the rise in the number of hybrid and electric cars on our roads will be one of several factors behind tyres becoming narrower and taller.

A narrower tyre brings a reduction in rolling resistance, which therefore reduces the level of drag and the amount of fuel burned unnecessarily. According to estimates, a difference in rolling resistance can be around 20%, which can translate to fuel consumption savings of 3-5%. Combine this with technology that will allow a business to keep a closer handle on the state of its tyres and the savings could add up.

"Those technologies will encourage better tyre husbandry and will reduce tyre costs, which is the second highest after fuel when running a car fleet," says Falken's Matt Smith.