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Shift in tire needs creates challenges in India

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Vipin Basan

AKRON—One tire fits all is becoming passé in India, and that's good for tire makers, according to Vipin Basan, a speaker at the International Tire Exhibition & Conference.

India is a land of extreme climates and road conditions—from tropical heat and monsoon in the south to the bitter cold of the Himalayan north, from modern superhighways to pothole-plagued one-lane roads, said Basan, JK Tyre & Industries Ltd.'s general manager for passenger and light truck tire global product development. He sees that as both a problem and an opportunity.

Basan said tire development in India now focuses on specific applications, rather than addressing only regional conditions, during his presentation about the Indian tire industry and radialization and in comments afterward at ITEC, held Sept. 9-11 in Akron.

“For example, certain tires are being developed for one type of mining, and other tires for other types of mining,” he said. And while passenger tire radialization virtually is complete in India, the truck and bus, and light commercial vehicle tire markets have a long way to go.

“Radialization in truck and bus and LCV is the next major leap forward for the tire industry in India,” Basan said.

Today, estimates show only 32 percent of India's truck/bus tire market is radial and 30 percent of the light commercial vehicles sector.

India's—and in fact the world's—tire makers know this, and are investing heavily in the country. The executive said current or recently completed investments in production capacity and related areas in India totals $4 billion.

“This kind of investment by the tire industry in India is unprecedented in history,” he said. “Almost all the tire companies have invested in setting up new facilities, upgrading their existing facilities and adding manufacturing capacity.”

Besides domestic-based tire makers such as JK Tyre, Apollo Tyres Ltd., MRF Ltd., Ceat Ltd., Balkrishna Industries Ltd., Alliance Tire Group and Birla Tyres Ltd., the oligarchs—Bridgestone Corp., Michelin and Goodyear—have tire production in India.

Estimates are radialization of the truck and bus sector in the subcontinent will reach 45 percent by 2016-17, Basan said, and light commercial vehicles will hit 37 percent. Radials own the new-truck/bus market, accounting for 75 percent of all vehicles. The aftermarket, however, is a different story—just 25 percent.

“The reason for that is the high cost of admission,” he said. Customers fear the initial cost of a radial and don't realize its economic benefits, from fuel economy to retreadability.

“Everyone is working to educate the customer.”

The tire companies are focusing on product development. The JK Tyre executive listed several of the challenges the industry faces in that regard, starting with the road system, the world's third largest.

Extreme road conditions

Three types of roads in India exist, Basan said: six- or four-lane expressways that connect most of the major cities; two-lane roads between large cities and smaller towns; and substandard roads, “usually with big potholes, not very good conditions,” that account for half the nation's roads.

“A truck going from Delhi to Baroda travels at high speed on the highway, then has go to a village that practically has no road. That is the challenge the tire industry has to face.”

Another problem is that silica, used in radials to provide low-rolling resistance, has problems when the tire is subjected to those Indian temperature extremes of freezing cold to sweltering heat to monsoon-soaked roadways.

“The problem is durability, caused by the high temperature swings,” the executive said.

JK Tyre pioneered silica technology in India, he said, and is tackling that issue by looking at blends of carbon and silica, and functionalized polymers as a solution.

Industry research and development must improve the durability and retreadability of truck and bus radials, as well as simulation and predictive technologies and faster product cycle times.

Road improvement, particularly the creation of high-speed corridors for freight, is a prerequisite for increased radialization in India, Basan said.

It is a focus of the government's infrastructure efforts, along with improvement in vehicle technology and emission controls and the availability of good quality fuel.

Among other needs is drivers' education and training, he said, so the larger, faster trucks can be driven safely in a nation that is on course to be one of the three largest automotive markets in the world by 2020, Basan said, citing a JD Powers & Associates study.  

Today, 39 tire companies are operating 60 plants in India.

He said the industry has an annual growth rate of more than 10 percent and sales of $8.7 billion.

The tire industry has plenty of domestic and nearby foreign material suppliers. The country is the world's fourth-largest producer of natural rubber, of which 65 percent is used in tires, Basan said, and is second only to China as the largest consumer of NR.