Terry K. Gettys, Executive Vice-President, Research and Development, and member of the Group Executive Committee at French tyre company Michelin, talks to Business Today on the innovations taking place in the tyre industry .
BT: What are the technological innovations are taking place globally in the tyre industry?
Gettys: Today, the most significant innovations are targeted around low-rolling resistance of tyres. It's the energy efficiency of our tyres. This is pulled by environmental desires to consume less fuel as is regulated by many countries around the world with higher expectation for lower fuel consumption. Because the less fuel you consume, it is better for the environment.
Tyres play an important role in energy consumed by the vehicle. In passenger cars around 20 per cent of the energy consumed by the vehicle is just to make the tyres roll. Tyres consume a lot of energy because they flex when heat builds-up.
On trucks and buses, it's even more significant; tyres consume 30-35 per cent of fuel in these vehicles.
The difficulty is that to progress in the energy-efficiency of the tyre is often antagonistic or opposite to other performances that you expect from a tyre. You expect dry and wet, traction, grip. When you expect long wearing mileage, when you expect lesser noise, when you expect good robustness, resistance to shocks to bad roads, the design features for low rolling resistance go against those design characteristics. So the need for technology is to beat the compromises.
Another area of strong innovations we are anticipating in the future is in connected vehicles. Vehicles are becoming more and more equipped with automated information systems and we are anticipating that tyres will contribute to the overall vehicle by being connected to the vehicle information system.
For example, today, most vehicles in many countries around the world - the tyres are equipped with tyre pressure mounting systems that can alert the driver for maintenance needed for the tyres. So, we are working on how to inform the driver or the maintenance operator when service on the tyre is needed. In mining trucks or earth mover applications, trucks are very sensitive to heat build-up in those large tyres. So, we can communicate the running temperature at optimal efficiency, and getting the most out of the tyres without running into any excessive heat build-up situations. We are anticipating an extension of that technology to automatic vehicles as the car industry is moving to those types of vehicles.
BT: What are the new innovations you are working on currently?
Gettys: In the early nineties, we first came out with energy-efficient tyres. We call them green tyres since they had low-rolling resistance--they consumed less fuel so it was green, protecting renewable resources, as well as green from less emissions. We continue to improve those generations of tyres and we are now on our 5th generations in the market place.
We also have in the truck and bus segments, new solutions that allow us to be more efficient. In the North American market specially, we have what we call X1 Single. It's a wide based truck tyre that replaces two dual tyres. That allows us to reduce weight and rolling resistance. One tyre replacing two, allows about 7 per cent fuel saving.
We are looking at tyres that eliminate the spare in the form of sealant is one and also in the form of run flat or extended tyres. These are tyres with reinforcement with the side wall so that if you have an air loss, you can continue to drive on them for 50 miles an hour, so that you can get off the highway and get service. These are very popular in China because of its road conditions.
We are also working on tyres that assure the adherence or performances throughout the life of the tyre. As the tyre wears the tread get lesser teeth, and the tyre loses depth, wet traction and snow winter traction capability. So we introduced technologies - first in North America-- called Premier All Seasons. Under this technology, when the tyre wears, the tread opens up more, new features appear that aren't in the new tyre. So that it compensates for the wet traction capability.
BT: What are the other key challenges you face in terms of technology and innovations?
Gettys: Maintaining the robustness of the tyre in road conditions in countries like India is a challenge. There are irregular pavements and in those conditions, automotive tyres can sustain damages - either the sidewalls can get hinged or the crown of the tyre can rupture because of the impact of the roads. We are working to eliminate any risks of downtime.
Technologies that we are working on to avoid those compromises are--sealant material, an additional material layer inside the tyre so that if there is ever a puncture in a tyre it self-heals. Those technologies have been around for 20 years in the tyre industry but with trade-offs. Now, we have new generation of sealant materials that has no impact on rolling resistance or fuel efficiency.
BT: In a country like India, how different is your preparation in terms of technology, innovations or product development?
Gettys: The design of the product itself has to be adapted for local usage. For a country like India, that has sometimes high loading conditions, sometimes bad roads, high temperature of operating, we use different design solutions than in other countries such as in North America or Europe. They are more reinforced so that they can sustain the temperature and road conditions and get a good wear life and provide the customers good value for their money whilst resisting the conditions they are in.
BT: In India, the regulatory climate is not as strict as say in Europe. So does it make your work easier in country like India?
Gettys: The Indian standards have some specific requirements. We see in other countries regulatory requirements for rolling resistance level for tyres and for levels of wet adherence and for noise. What we see is that these requirements force the entire tyre industry to progress.
We are already striving to get the highest quality tyres to the market place. We do think that regulations are good to help the entire industry.
BT: What are the kind of R&D you have been doing in India?
Gettys: X MULTI, a tubeless tyre, is an example of our work in India as we establish our R&D in India. We have a team that specially designed the first tyres and we launched these in July. The new line of tyre are designed by the R&D team in India and manufactured at our Chennai facility in India. It's a steer tyre for truck and drive tyre for truck. Different designs for steer and drive axel. It is a tubeless tyre and it's a most modern radial size drop centre type radial. So X MULTI is our first innovation that is designed specifically for Indian truck and bus usage conditions by the R&D team here.
BT: Is the India R&D centre also working on products to be sold in other countries or is it specifically for India?
Gettys: We started recently and our first mission is truck and bus design for all the Asian zone and not just India, Africa, Middle East. It will also be, South East Asia, Australia and China. So it's all of Asia, Africa and Middle East.
BT: In Asia, where do you have R&D centres?
Gettys: Well, the main design team is here in Gurgaon. They design for our manufacturing facilities in China, Thailand and Chennai in India . They have the design responsibilities for all of them. We also have local R&D staff close to the plants to support the work in the plants but the design responsibility is here
BT: So, the design team in India is significant in terms of your Asia business?
Gettys: Absolutely. When you look at the market in Africa, Middle-East, India, South East Asia and China, it's about 60 per cent of the world population. So tremendous part of future mobility needs and its over 50 per cent of truck and bus market. Therefore, it has a very significant role in the company for design responsibilities.
BT: So, give me two big innovations waiting to happen in the tyre industry which will be a game changer?
Gettys: One game changer we recently introduced, a new innovation called Tweel. It's a non-inflated, non-pneumatic tyre. We have begun production in our North American plant for speciality markets of lawn mowers. It's a tyre that never has to be inflated and never goes flat. So, it's a solution we consider ultimate mobility as you never need to have any maintenance. We began selling it for low speed off-road applications where tyres have difficulties.
BT: What are the things you need to sacrifice to get a Tweel?
Gettys: We are offering TWEEL on utility vehicles where the comfort is actually better. For vehicles that don't have suspensions like lawn mowers - those low speed specialty vehicles that don't have suspensions. The comfort is quite good and better than inflated tyres. For vehicles with suspensions like automotive, it's not yet mature, We are still working on research in improving mass rolling resistance and comfort.
Another innovation we introduced in the European market is Cross Climate. It's a summer tyre with winter tyre capabilities. In an European market, 90 per cent customers still change summer tyres to winter tyres in winter conditions. It's hard to relate to in India as you don't have severe winter weather that you have in Europe.