It's never been easier to put the right rubber on the road for the job at hand. Indeed, just as quickly as fleet owners adjust their truck applications to meet changing market conditions and tighter cost-control goals, tire makers are responding by turning out new application-specific products.
Over-the-road and on/off-highway truck tires once upon a not-so-distant time ago were characterized mainly by their axle position, be it steer, drive or trailer. But today, tire suppliers are more likely to position their rubber by axle position within product families — whose offerings are engineered to address the specific conditions encountered by each wheel position in a given truck application.
Tires are typically the highest single equipment cost for any fleet and are treated and tracked like the rolling assets they are, due to the high value well-maintained casings fetch. And since tires must be changed out or retreaded just as soon as original tread mileage is used up, they are the first component that is regularly changed out on a new truck and the easiest one to switch in terms of type or make.
Tire dealers, savvy ones, anyway, are the second to know — right after the fleet owner — if something about the operation of a group of trucks spec'd for a specific task has changed since the new power units were first delivered.
Those dealers, as well as national account reps who call directly on fleets, make sure the tire companies they work for know what is changing or may soon change out in the field where the rubber meets the road. And that, by necessity, makes tire makers keen trucking trend-spotters — whose resulting actions in turn bear close watching by everyone who puts trucks to work.
According to tire company experts, key changes are occurring to over-the-road (OTR) and on/off-highway truck operations in each of the key user segments to which tires and retreads are marketed, leading them to engineer and get to market more types of application-specific tire models as quickly as possible.
What makes a tire application-specific will vary by market segment, but generally speaking the factors will include the tread and sidewall designs as well as the rubber compounding.
By far, tire action is hottest right now across the OTR segments of long-haul and regional, where the line between them is actually blurring enough for many motor carriers to want “double-duty” tires while other fleets are running more routes of different lengths than before, which is changing their traditional tire requirements as well.
In the vocational or mixed-service realm, tires in many cases are being asked to carry heavier loads and fuel efficiency is gaining more attention. The design of on/off-road or severe-duty tires is evolving to reflect that many of these tires spend much more of their time on the highway than they do at job sites. The upshot is fuel efficiency may now factor more heavily than out-and-out ruggedness for more tire purchasers in this segment.
Though the wide-base market remains a niche unlikely to grow beyond 10 to 12% of OTR tires, wide-base tires are being offered by more and more suppliers. Most popular with long-haulers for their fuel-efficiency benefit and with bulk haulers for their lower weight, wide-base tires are now being offered in new series (sizes) that are exact replacements height-wise for common 22.5 low-profile dual tires.
Last — but far from least — the desire of fleets of all types to cut fuel costs is nearly at the point of regarding tires designed largely for lower rolling resistance as fitting a new “fuel-saving” application.
Certainly, this is already the case with long-haul tires engineered to comply with EPA SmartWay fuel-saving verification standards. But SmartWay is the tip of the iceberg as tires will be a contributor to the federal fuel-efficiency standards for commercial vehicles that truck OEMs will have to start meeting in the next two to four years.
“This [application-specific] approach provides specific solutions in order to effect a fleet's requirement for profitability and overall cost reduction,” points out John Hagan, senior director of sales for Toyo Tire U.S.A. Corp. “Application-specific/solution-based products are offered with the end in mind. Appropriate application-specific tire recommendations are vital for specific applications by optimizing tire design and production processes through performance — resulting in the lowest overall operating cost to the fleet.”
Echoing Hagan's view, William Estupinan, director of technical service for North and Latin America for Giti Tire, which markets GT Radial truck tires, says the “tire industry is moving in the direction of developing products that are ultra-specialized to precisely meet specific service options. This being said,” he adds, “there are versatile tires that can offer a fair balance between two operating conditions if the conditions are fairly close to each other on the spectrum.”
According to Gary Enterline, Michelin product category manager, whether one is talking about long-haul, regional, on/off or vocational trucking, “within each broad category we [are getting] into more application-specific tires. Typically, there will be one or two applications that will be key drivers [for us] to develop tires for their specific needs. If the volume is there, we will create a specific tire. The tire must be feasible [for the segment], and we must see there is a long-term need for it.”
“What's happening in the market is that buyers are getting much more educated about both the high cost of tires and of fuel,” remarks Clif Armstrong, director of marketing-Commercial Vehicle Tire The Americas for Continental Truck Tires. “Fuel means the most to long-haul operators, of course, and fleets [in general] are getting more application-specific about tires, especially as they more often have a complete tire program in place.” He adds that tire makers “can't just give fleets the highest mileage [anymore] because they could lose out on fuel economy.”
“Today, tires are being looked at a lot of different ways,” says Aaron Murphy, vice president of CMA, Double Coin Tire's North American subsidiary. “This puts added pressure on the performance of application-specific tires. And this has not occurred by choice; every fleet has new economic factors to consider about their operations.”
Yokohama's Rick Phillips, director of commercial sales, points out that “as trucking operations have become more specialized, so have the demands that are placed on tires. Commercial tire manufacturers are investing a significant amount of research and development to design and manufacture products that can meet the needs of specific fleet applications.
“Getting the right product in the right application will absolutely prolong tire and casing life and in turn lower the cost of ownership,” Phillips continues. “Conversely, the wrong product will have negative results. You would never see a world-class sprinter trying to run a race in golf shoes.”
Phillips points out that there is “understandably a very high demand for fuel-efficient products right now. However, it's important that a fleet consider all aspects of the operation.”
“For instance,” he explains, “as you change properties of the rubber compound to reduce the rolling resistance [to improve fuel efficiency], the rubber also becomes less resistant to cuts and chips. So a fuel-efficient tire probably would not produce any noticeable savings in a severe application that is susceptible to a lot of cuts and chipping.”
Phillips explains that Yokohama invests “a lot of time internally educating our sales force on the different applications and specifically how we incorporate different technologies in our products to address those requirements.”
But he says that's only half the battle. “We must also educate them on how to conduct an in-depth interview with the fleet manager to determine as much information as possible about their operation to be able to suggest the proper product. No matter how good your product may be, if it's not installed in the right application and used correctly, it will not perform.”
“Providing the right tire requires understanding the customer,” agrees Michelin's Enterline. And he says there is a conundrum tire makers must take into account. “We may ask a fleet if they prefer more [tread] mileage or lower rolling resistance,” he explains, “but some track tread mileage better than miles per gallon” so it can be hard for them to “see” the mpg advantage of a given tire clearly.
Of all the major tire segments, long-haul is arguably where more fleets are changing their operations and doing so on a large scale to better correspond to current freight flows and make it easier to find enough qualified drivers.
“In long-haul applications,” says Enterline, “fleets will [typically] consider fuel efficiency to pay back faster and at a higher level [than longer original tire life]. The savings in miles per gallon can come close to paying the cost of the tire.”
He says an EPA SmartWay-verified steer, drive or trailer tire “does represent a tire efficient in rolling resistance and some of ours are even lower.” He notes that at this point, the “SmartWay list is aimed at long-haul type tires only; however, we have tires for long-haul and regional use that fit there as well.”
According to Donn Kramer, director of marketing for Goodyear Commercial Tire, the company's G662 FuelMax steer tire for regional-haul applications is SmartWay-approved as is a full line of long-haul tires, including a trailer model fitted with Goodyear's DuraSeal puncture-resistant component.
“We see a need for puncture-resistant features like our DuraSeal taking hold on trailer tires,” he explains. “DuraSeal for trailer tires is becoming more popular because it helps increase uptime due to the inflation issue and the downtime associated with repairs of tires in this wheel position.”
Guy Walenga, director of engineering-commercial products & technologies for Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, says the difference between long-haul and regional truck operations began to narrow back in 1990 with the roll out of twin-screw tractors with set-back front axles that provided greater maneuverability. “When those trucks hit the market,” he explains, “carriers had a truck that could run long-haul but also handle regional or even P&D runs.
“That's when we really started working hard to match more tires to fleets that ran long-haul — say 250,000 mi. a year — and those that began dropping more loads and going into urban areas where they required tires compounded to protect sidewalls from curbing and scrubbing.”
Walenga says the call is toughest when a fleet bridges these two types of over-the-road applications. “A true regional tire will not run as long in long-haul service,” he points out, “but a long-haul tire does not have the sidewall protection afforded by a regional model.”
A solution is in the works, though, Walenga advises, as Bridgestone is “looking to build a regional tire that will meet some SmartWay [rolling-resistance] requirements, which are very tight for steer and drive tires. In fact,” he adds, “targets for the federal GHG [greenhouse gas] and mpg rules [announced last month] are easier to meet than what's required for SmartWay verification.”
Walenga also observes that given the high cost of fuel, fleets running regionally may find it “worth considering a high-mpg tire” over one designed for greater sidewall protection.
In an effort to keep the GT Radial lineup simple and straightforward, Giti's Estupinan says the company is moving in the direction of offering only fuel-efficient tires for long-haul operations. “Our GT Radial GSL213 FS steer tire and GT Radial 669+ FS drive tire are already SmartWay-verified, and our GT Radial GT979 FS trailer tire will soon be. So when fleets buy long-haul tires from us, they know they are getting our most fuel-efficient compounds while not compromising at all on mileage performance, retreadability, wet traction and handling.”
Estupinan advises fleets to pay close attention to their trailer tires when considering fuel economy. “On a tractor-trailer combination, the steer tires contribute 15-20% of the tire's overall contribution to fuel economy, drive tires 30-40% and trailer tires about 40-50%.”
He points out that considering that trailer tires have the biggest impact on fuel economy and represent the largest population in the average fleet, selecting the proper trailer tires will have a bigger impact on mpg than those selected for any other wheel position.
“Therefore,” Estupinan states, “the first priority for a fleet interested in saving a significant amount of money is to start moving into fuel-efficient tires — SmartWay-verified — starting with the trailer axles and continuing with steer and drives.”
According to Toyo's John Hagan, the company is now rolling out its new M157 free-rolling axle tire for non-drive positions. He points out the tire is SmartWay-verified and features Toyo's proprietary e-balance technology. The result, he states, is a uniform and consistent tire that delivers improved fuel economy while fighting irregular wear.
He says the M157 also uses a new four steel-belt package to ensure uniform growth of the tread area. “This new design reduces rolling resistance while also helping to reduce irregular wear; the result is an improvement in fuel mileage.”
In the vocational or mixed-service segment, the changes tire makers are responding to often regard harsher operating conditions being experienced by trucks in several key applications.
According to Continental's Armstrong, one common requirement of vocational fleets is the ability to complete three to five retreads per tire casing. “On top of that,” he points out, “there is, in general, high demand placed on these tires, and tire life may be measured [not in tread mileage but] in hours of service.
“For example,” Armstrong continues, “consider refuse trucks. They are carrying more weight in solid waste [now that much trash is recycled and handled by special trucks] and must still resist cutting and chipping. The bead and sidewall must be as durable as possible to protect the life of the casing.”
Bridgestone's Walenga concurs, noting that “refuse trucks are in an entirely separate world that requires highly engineered tires” that are built for long life and retreadability.
The on/off-highway arena is also being looked at closely due to one central realization common to all tire makers: Trucks running on and off the highway today are spending more of their time on the road than off it.
According to Walenga, Bridgestone has found that rather than running off-road the “50 to 60% of the time as we had long thought, if on/off-road tires are used off-road 10% of the time, that is a lot.”
The upshot is these tires are being looked at “radically different” with the goal in mind of deploying compounding that “will keep the off-road protection needed in place, but also improve their on-highway performance, including fuel economy.”
He adds that if a tire is being used off-road 30% or more of the time, then the fleet should choose a tire “geared for off-road performance and not fuel efficiency. And protecting the casing is key to making such on/off-road tires pay out.”
Though a niche market, wide-base tires are apparently lucrative enough that more and more tire makers are adding them to their product mix. For example, Goodyear's Kramer says the company's new SmartWay-verified G392 SSD drive and G394 SST trailer wide-base tires for long-haul and regional-haul applications feature Fuel Max Technology and also are the first in the industry to offer flat protection, “thanks to our DuraSeal component, a gel-like inner liner that instantly seals punctures of up to a quarter-inch in the repairable area of the tread.”
According to Kramer, these new wide-base tires are “game-changers” because if a standard wide-base tire goes flat, “there is no limp-home capability, and in about 30% of the cases, the tire deflates to a level where it ruins a $450 wheel. But with DuraSeal, customers can run confidently with wide-base and reap the weight-saving benefits of the tires, while gaining excellent fuel economy and long miles to removal.”
Bridgestone's Walenga reports the big action in the super-single arena for long-haul and regional tires is the growth in availability of 50 Series products — typically size 445/50R22.5 — which have the same overall diameter height-wise as 22.5-in. low-profile dual-fitment tires.
“The 50 Series tires make it easy to swap out duals with singles,” he explains. “Earlier wide-base tires, going back 10 years, were 65 Series products and were 4 in. taller than duals. That doesn't sound like much, but the difference meant you had to spec the truck around the tire if you wanted to switch to wide base.” He adds that 50 Series tires have been on the market since 2001 and that Bridgestone started offering them in 2004.
Michelin is keen on its new X One, which Enterline calls the “next generation” wide-base tire “because it is sized to replace duals without being any wider in diameter.” He points out that the X One XDA Energy tire is designed for long-haul use while the XDN2 is suited for regional and some long-haul applications. Enterline adds that the real benefit of wide-base tires is they both reduce rolling resistance for better fuel economy and reduce vehicle weight, which is especially appealing to bulk haulers.
Continental's Armstrong points out the tire maker is adding two new wide-base tires aimed at the long-haul market. The first, the HDL2 Eco Plus (heavy drive long haul) in size 445/50R22.5 features 27/32nds of tread depth, a closed shoulder, and regenerating sipes in the middle of the tread blocks. He says the tire's “groove geometry” was designed to reduce premature wear.
The second is actually the addition of the 445/50R22.5 size for the existing HDL2 DL (heavy drive long haul, deep lug) tire. At 27/32nds of tread depth, this tire's tread design, Armstrong notes, was copied from the existing sizes of the HDL2 DL and provides the excellent traction with an open shoulder. He adds that the tire also boasts a “bottom groove treatment” that reduces stone retention and outside groove geometry to provide durability.
According to Double Coin's Murphy, the tire maker will begin offering “super wides” in the near future. “These tires are currently in evaluation and will initially be aimed at linehaul drive and trailer applications,” he advises, and will be designed to replace low-profile 22.5-in. dual tires.
Regardless of application, tires are a “huge investment for a fleet and a big part of their operating expense,” observes Yokohama's Phillips. “The fleets that have a better handle on which tire products perform well in their operations — and can manage that expense — certainly have an advantage in today's very competitive market.”