Treading New Frontiers
There is far too much scepticism about what futurists think of developments in vehicles, tyres and sustainable mobility. One cannot dismiss their forecasts as wishful thinking. The tyre and automobile industry is at an inflection point. Top tyre researchers, and those who watch developmental trends, caution that it is perilous to ignore the frenetic technological changes that are shaping the very future of transportation. At a time when auto sales are scaling new heights, tyre makers have no choice but to innovate in order to keep up with the pace in vehicle developments. Change is the only constant, and tyre engineers should not skid off the rapidly shifting track that represents rising consumer expectations on greener mobility.
Distinguished tyre researcher Chuck Yurkovich says tyre companies that are unwilling or unable to keep up with the pace of technology developments would soon fall by the wayside. The current situation is different from what was in the early 1970s, the Vice President of Global Research and Development with Cooper Tire said while addressing The Tire Society’s 32nd annual conference on Sept 10.
“Although tyres are still round and black to consumers, they’re dramatically different than they were in that time-frame,” he noted. Tyre manufacturers have to embrace disruptive innovations in order to survive. This is the challenge they have to take up.
This assumes greater importance in the context of the dramatic changes happening in the transportation sector. Government regulatory authorities and consumers are demanding greener and sustainable practices. With more people seeing their income levels rising, the demand for individual transportation is also increasing. The mobility sector is on expansion mode worldwide as never before. And green is the theme that is driving this growth.
Analysts estimate that over 1.5 billion tyres are currently manufactured annually valued at US$160 billion. This is expected to touch US$203 billion by 2017, with green tyres accounting for 35 per cent. The trend indicates that the tyre industry and suppliers should sharply focus on developing green technologies and product strategies.
Dr James A Popio, General Manager and Director of Engineering at Ohio-based Smithers Rapra’s Ravenna Laboratory, told Polymers & Tyre Asia in an interview that with the focus on vehicle fuel-efficiency, there will be more demand for new materials and designs for tyres. There is a need to intensify research on improving fuel-efficiency by producing tyres of low rolling resistance. There should be greater use of eco-friendly fillers.
Some companies have started using innovative fillers derived from naturally-grown products such as starch and rice in a bid to reduce or replace carbon black, which is produced from petroleum. Attempts have also been made in the commercial use of bio-oils such as orange oil, soybean, corn and canola. Manufacturing light-weight and low-rolling resistance tyres is the major challenge before tyre producers, says the Istanbul (Turkey)-based technologist and independent industry consultant Ertugrul Yilmaz. He said in an interview that the use of silica in the tread compound is one solution, but even this is not enough by itself for producing tyres that are specifically meant for electric vehicles.
Another option is to develop ‘skinny and tall’ tyres with larger outer diameter fitted on large diameter rims and inflated with higher air pressure, Yilmaz said. This will certainly find wider usage in the future although the switch-over to this may be at a slower pace. “However, in my view we shall still have today’s wide and handsome low-aspect ratio tyres on the market as internal combustion engine vehicles will still be running on the roads.