CLERMONT-FERRAND, France-Groupe Michelin is intensifying its efforts to cut material use and rolling resistance while improving tire performance, as a reaction to higher raw material and energy costs.
The company wants to develop passenger and light truck tires that double the durability of current tires, yet built from only half the raw materials; produce medium truck tires that cut stopping distances by 20 to 30 percent; and design tires that reduce rolling resistance by half.
At press briefings at the firm´s world headquarters in Clermont-Ferrand and primary research and development center in nearby Ladoux, Michelin gave demonstrations but not specific details about its targets. At the Ladoux test track, the firm showed the benefits of reduced rolling resistance, maintaining proper tire pressures and the Pax run-flat tire/wheel system.
The French tire maker also showed off its state-of-the-art wet test track that already is drawing auto makers and their heavily camouflaged prototype vehicles for preproduction testing.
Michelin said its motivation for such R&D targets includes the escalating prices of raw materials and the expanding size of the world´s vehicle fleet.
Didier Miraton-head of a staff of 4,500 scientists, engineers and technicians working in Michelin R&D facilities globally-predicted the number of vehicles on the road will double to 1.6 billion in the next 30 years. Much of the growth will be in China, India, Russia, eastern Europe and South America, all developing areas experiencing not only rapid expansion of their fleets but of roads to carry them.
Miraton used the word "breakage" in describing the severity of the environmental impact if drastic developments are not made.
Twenty to as much as 25 percent of the pollution generated by a typical vehicle´s internal combustion engine is expended to overcome the rolling resistance of the vehicle´s wheels, the executives said. As rolling resistance decreases, fuel efficiency rises.
"The collective benefit for society is decreased pollution and exhaust emissions," Miraton said.
Michelin´s introduction of radial tires in the late 1940s reduced rolling resistance to around 15 kg/ton from 25. Michelin said its Energy line of passenger tires in the early 1990s reduced that number to 11, and the third-generation Energy tires launched last year cut it to less than nine.
In the last 10 years, Michelin also has reduced rolling resistance by cutting more than four pounds from the weight of a typical passenger tire. Reducing a tire´s flex and changing the mix of rubber and using more silica in the tread also cut rolling resistance.
"But it is of no interest to us to reduce the rolling resistance if the life of the tire is compromised," said Pierre Menendes, Michelin technical communications director.
The tire´s lifespan, in mileage, may not deteriorate, and hopefully will be increased.
"The idea is not to limit mobility, that would be crazy," he said. "Human beings have a big thirst for individual mobility. Michelin is responding to this need, but in a responsible way."
Miraton said the company already is experiencing raw material shortages, and expects the situation to worsen.
Shortages also mean higher costs. Michelin said its bill for natural rubber increased by 35 percent in 2002, another 35 percent in 2003 and last year bumped up another 16 percent. A double-digit increase is forecast for 2005.
Michelin also is dealing with higher costs for steel, synthetic rubber and rubber chemicals, all of which are experiencing higher pricing inflation than NR.
"The next decade is a world of more expensive resources," said Edouard Michelin, chief executive of Groupe Michelin. "Energy costs are not going to fall and raw materials are not going to revert to five years ago. This is a new reality we must face."