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Pressure mounts to make better tires

Today's tires are good. But they aren't good enough.

Not when automakers are supposed to sell cars and trucks that average 54.5 miles per gallon of fuel by 2030 in the United States, a General Motors executive said last week.

Carmakers will need to reinvent their vehicles to meet ever-tougher fuel standards and customer demands, said Terrence Connolly, director of GM Tire/Wheel Systems.

And as a result, tiremakers will need to reinvent tires, he said in his keynote talk at the Tire Society's 30th Meeting and Conference on Tire Science and Technology. About 150 people from around the globe, all experts on tire technology and chemistry, filled the hotel's main ballroom to hear him speak.

"There's enormous pressure on efficiency improvements," Connolly said.

To meet the new standards, fuel efficiency will need to improve an average of 5 percent a year over the next dozen years, Connolly said. By comparison, the auto industry has delivered fuel efficiency improvements of 1 percent to 2 percent annually in each of the previous 25 years, he said.

And that means tires need to significantly improve to help vehicles get better fuel mileage, he said. Tire rolling resistance has improved on average 1.7 percent a year since the 1970s; it will need to improve on average 5 percent a year from now on.

"We have a deep list of challenges to you," Connolly said. "There's really no easy path."

Tire technological development really became "incremental" after the 1940s, following such breakthroughs in previous decades as the creation of pneumatic and then radial tires, he said.

While there has been "really good" improvement in tire technology over the last 30 years, it's not enough for what the world will demand in upcoming years, he said.

Demographic trends will fuel substantial growth in vehicle sales -- as much as 22 million cars and trucks annually -- over the next 10 years in Brazil, Russia, India and China, known as the BRIC countries, he said. Global populations are projected to become increasingly urbanized as well, he said.

These population and living changes, part of a significant projected increase in energy needs, will drive the design and technology of motor vehicles, he said.

The tire industry will need to radically rethink things such as the current 50-year-old heavy tire and wheel rim configuration that also, in the case of spare tires, takes up valuable vehicle space, he said. Carmakers are eliminating spare tires on some of their newer vehicles.

"None of the pressures your industry faces will subside," Connolly said.

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