SEOUL, South Korea(Nov. 26, 2008)—Hankook Tire Co. has plans to sell a fuel-saving tire in North America, but it likely won't hit the market for another year.
The tire is sold in South Korea as Enfren, for environmentally friendly. Hankook said Enfren cuts rolling resistance by 21 percent and improves fuel economy by at least 2 percent.
Low-rolling-resistance tires glide more easily across the road thanks to less weight, specialized tread patterns and tweaked chemical compounds. This leads to better fuel economy.
Hankook is moving toward lighter, more environmentally friendly tires for all markets and segments, said CEO Suh Seung-hwa. The company, facing rising raw material costs, wants lighter tires that contain fewer materials. Customers—both consumers and auto makers—want tires that save fuel.
But it's tricky. “The important thing in rolling resistance,” Suh said, is that “we should have at the same time good grip. If you brake the car, it should stop.”
An engineer can lower the depth of tread grooves to reduce resistance, but grip of the road surface also is reduced, said Gim Gwang-heon, executive vice president of R&D. So engineers prefer steps other than more shallow treads. “That comes last,” Gim said.
Hankook plows 5 percent of annual revenue into research and development. On 2007 sales of 3.59 trillion won—or $2.88 billion at current exchange rates —that R&D spending comes to about $144 million.
In June, Hankook approved a $19 million annual increase in spending for environmental research. The company's goal is to reduce rolling resistance by 10 percent in the short term and 30 percent in five to 10 years.
Much of the technology has been around for a while, Hankook executives said at a recent media event at the company's headquarters. Hankook's first crack at a fuel-efficient tire came eight years ago in South Korea, but consumers didn't want it, said Lee Soo-il, vice president of marketing.
Lower rolling resistance means higher prices. In South Korea, Enfren sells at a 6-percent premium over Hankook's standard passenger tire.
Still, better-than-expected sales here have prompted Hankook to expand the Enfren lineup from three sizes to 14 by the end of this year, Lee said.
Hankook supplies many auto makers, but so far Enfren seems to be an aftermarket-only tire.
The tire will arrive in North America late next year or early in 2010, Lee said.