DEARBORN, Mich. (May 22, 2008) — Tire makers have made huge advances in improving tire fuel economy, according to Jim Gutting, director of Tire and Wheel Systems for General Motors Corp.
Now they need to do more, said the keynote speaker at the ACS Rubber Division´s spring meeting in Dearborn, Mich., April 28-30.
Gutting talked about the many approaches the auto maker has taken to boost fuel economy and manufacture "greener" vehicles, such as hybrids. He said tire makers produced dramatic results in their role in solving the problem, such as in reducing tire rolling resistance, but the pace of improvement has leveled off in recent years.
He challenged the audience, primarily rubber industry technical personnel, to jump-start development in the rolling resistance struggle. The executive discussed that issue, as well as other topics, in an interview after his speech.
Gutting is optimistic the tire manufacturers will deliver on fuel economy gains.
"I think they can. I really think there is an opportunity there, whether it is new compounds or new constructions," he said.
"I´m confident they can find something that can make a step increase in rolling resistance. That is where we need the help."
One technological advance that hasn´t seized the market is the run-flat, although General Motors remains interested in the product, Gutting said.
"It´s a huge advantage in that you don´t have to stop, you don´t have to repair a flat tire, you don´t have to worry about carrying around a spare and a jack," he said. "Where we do need some help from the industry is in that run-flats are significantly more expensive than conventional tires."
Gutting said in higher-end vehicles, consumers are willing to pay for run-flats. That´s not the case with the less-expensive cars.
"On an entry-level vehicle, where price is the most important thing, it´s pretty hard to get the customer to spend the money on run-flat tires when they are looking at the basic cost of the vehicle."
The fact that run-flats can´t just be used on any vehicle is another problem, he said.
"You can´t just plug them on a vehicle, since you get chassis loads up to 30 percent, significantly higher. You have to design the whole vehicle´s suspension to compensate for those higher loads. You have to do that up front."
Still, GM considers run-flats to be viable. "I´d like to see more of them. But I´d like to see them down in cost," Gutting said. He also hopes tire makers develop run-flats that offer a better ride, since a deflated run-flat runs on the sidewall, which provides quite a stiff ride.
Global vehicles, global tires
Where tires are made is, like the vehicles that ride on them, a global proposition, the executive said.
It´s fundamentally true that it doesn´t matter where a tire is produced, as long as it meets the required specifications, he said. However, the fact that GM now is operating a global engineering program makes a difference.
In the past, Gutting said, GM would have a platform, and the vehicles that were designed and sold in, say, Germany, were similar to vehicles sold in the States. As a result, there would be engineering people doing redundant work.
"We now are setting up a global engineering program," he said. "We expect we´ll engineer once, in multiple regions, for sale anywhere in the globe."
That means that while GM is manufacturing throughout the world, it faces local content considerations that can encourage tire makers to be just as global. "There´s an imperative that we´d like to put tires on that vehicle that are from that region or country" to help meet local content laws, he said.
Another issue promoting the globalization of tire manufacturing concerns shipping.
"Tires are difficult to ship," he said. While not impossible-and GM does ship tires for use on vehicles made throughout the world, such as in China and South Korea-it is costly and much preferable to have a supplier nearby.
"So what we like to do is have our tire companies able to produce tires in many different regions, especially as close to the (GM) plant as possible. That helps us, and it helps them with shipping costs."
Gutting said not all tire makers have the capability to manufacture tires throughout the world, and do it to a global standard.
"They are not always capable of producing an identical tire from region to region. It might have slightly different compounds, materials, equipment."
GM has faced the same situation, with equipment, manufacturing processes and assembly not always the same in different regions, he said. That´s what the company now is addressing.
"You´ve got to get global with all your plants," he said.