In many ways the world will change in the coming years, but in many ways it won´t, according to Goodyear´s vice president of tire technology and strategic planning.
For instance, don´t look for the demise of the personal vehicle or commercial trucking in the short or long term, William Hopkins said in his keynote address at the ACS Rubber Division Spring Meeting in Akron.
He said forecasts see the addition of 100 million vehicles to the world´s roads in the next three years, with an increase in every region except Japan. Commercial vehicle growth is expected to grow even faster. He noted that truck production has risen 35 percent in the last 10 years, and that growth rate isn´t expected to slow down going forward.
"If you think we´ll turn the world into a world of mass transit, I can tell you it´s not going to happen," Hopkins said.
For one reason, the infrastructure and highway systems haven´t expanded much in recent decades. "But the main reason it isn´t going to happen is personal freedom," he said. "We all want to go where we want to go when we want to go."
And the fact that these changes aren´t likely to happen is beneficial to the tire industry. "Ultimately, transportation of people and goods will continue to require tires," the Goodyear executive said. "There´s nothing on the horizon that this will change in any dramatic way."
Some things will change
Personal vehicles are becoming more diversified, Hopkins said, with electric and hybrid vehicles beginning to show popularity in large urban areas with abundant car populations.
But in less-developed countries, a different kind of city car is evolving — a small car that needs to carry a heavier load. These aren´t markets where speed-rated tires will be needed.
Hopkins also sees continued development of intelligent tire systems, building on the tire pressure monitoring units being added to cars and trucks today. He expects to see these systems begin to measure other things such as road grip and slippage.
"There is no doubt in my mind that some day these systems will tell us more than tire performance," he said. "They will also tell us about our driving habits and suggest ways to alter them. Not too far in the future these systems will automatically tell us when the combination of speed and driving conditions means we need to put more distance between ourselves and the vehicles ahead."
Such systems also will be an important component in commercial tires, where products have to perform well in a wide variety of applications, from long-haul to off-road to a combination of both. More attention will be paid to tire inflation because it´s a key component in reducing rolling resistance and improving fuel economy.
There also is a need for quieter tires and shorting braking distances. "As vehicles get bigger and heavier, they want to stop them faster too," he said.
Tire production worldwide will continue to grow, led by gains in China and Europe, Hopkins said. And with global output climbing at a strong pace, that means raw material supplies will remain critically low.
"Everything about our tires is affected by the materials that go into them," he said. "New synthetic materials are one of the factors helping us innovate."
Hopkins said the shortages and rising cost will force manufacturers to explore alternative materials, such as polymers, whether they are natural- or petroleum-based. Future themes will be to conserve resources and use materials in the wisest manner possible. He believes key performance enhancements will come in the areas of tire treadwear and fuel economy without sacrificing wet traction.
With natural rubber still the most common polymer in tires-particularly truck tires-that may cause problems for tire firms.
"The price and availability of natural rubber is critically important to tire manufacturers," Hopkins said. "Alternatives to NR with better performance than today´s options are needed in the immediate future."
The forecast for NR production and consumption over the next 15 years shows that it is likely demand will outstrip supply-even if every rubber tree is tapped. And with nearly all the NR in use still coming from hevea trees, much work still needs to be done on alternatives.
"Over 2,500 kinds of plants produce natural latex, but most of these plants are small and grow slowly, so they do not produce enough latex or they produce latex that is not of a good quality," he said.
A number of universities are working on two potential alternatives-guayule and dandelions-to engineer these plants to produce a better quality and have a higher yield. The closest synthetic NR substitute is polyisoprene, but its green strength and hot tear properties are still inferior to NR, according to Hopkins.