High-tech tire world still relies on natural products used decades ago

Bridgestone recently held a driving test of its new tires. Among the lineup is its low-rolling resistance Ecopia tire (Photo by Larry Cornwell).

By LARRY CORNWELL Special to The Post and Courier

Formulated, synthesized and manmade compounds and products have come a long way. Chemical engineering today is light years from where it was 10 years ago. Nowadays, chemical engineering is done on a molecular level, which in itself is incredible.

However, even with all of the strides, some of nature’s original recipes are still irreplaceable. One such recipe is the rubber latex born from trees. Natural tree rubber is still a key ingredient in car, truck and motorcycle tires. Two advantages of natural rubber are it wears longer and runs cooler. This is why the tires that are on your vehicle contain a mixture of synthetic and natural rubber.

You may not know it, but there is global shortage of rubber due to worldwide automotive demands. This has pushed the tire industry into overdrive to find manmade compounds to replace natural rubber. Here is a fun fact that you can drop at your next party. Most — 93 percent to be precise —of the world’s natural rubber supply is produced in Asia in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Vietnam, China, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Cambodia. (You don’t have to give me credit, just claim as your own).

I recently did a brief tire test of some of Bridgestone’s new products. In many ways, tires are the least appreciated feature on any truck, motorcycle or car. Yet, good tires are vital, because they are the only tactile link between your vehicle and the ground.

The science of tire formulas, design and construction is a fascinating world. Tire engineering, unlike mechanical engineering, has some areas where the science is still not fully understood.

Some of the features that are in today’s tires are amazing. Take for instance what’s in Bridgestone tires. Some of their models have what look like simple lines or cuts incorporated in the tread blocks. These simple cuts have been engineered to create grip. These cuts are called sipes, which open when the wheel is in motion. In turn, this creates an uneven edge, which then can dig into snow to maintain or gain traction. If this sipe is too large, then it creates instability in the tread, which can affect wear and can also generate more noise.

Bridgestone engineers have to create a tire that lasts longer, grips surfaces better, yet is designed to be quiet and smooth riding. One of the features of the Bridgestone Ecopia tire is reduced rolling resistance. Rolling resistance is a measurement of how much energy it takes to get tires up to speed and to maintain inertia. On the race track, a hot tire is a good tire because it grips the surface well. However this creates drag, so the Ecopia was designed to have lower temperatures. In the end, it has less rolling resistance.

“Bridgestone’s Ecopia tires provide lower rolling resistance and deliver better fuel economy than a conventional tire, without any sacrifice in wear, wet performance or stopping ability,” said Mark Johnson, manager of product education for Bridgestone’s North American consumer tire sales group.

“With better fuel efficiency and a lower carbon footprint, Ecopia tires are good for the planet and for your pocketbook,” he said.

Remember, your tires are very important. New tires and especially broken-in ones need to be closely monitored. Make sure that they are properly inflated and that their tread depth is still good. In the end this will help provide you with a smoother, quieter and safer ride.

Larry Cornwell is an automotive journalist with Speedracer Syndication. He is based in the Charlotte area.