Tires may seem like one of the simplest parts of a truck or van, but fleets’ choices about tires can have impacts on safety, downtime, greenhouse gas emissions, and total cost of ownership.
While seemingly simple, they can have a major impact on fleet performance. For those very reasons, tires continue to adapt to the changing needs of the industry.
What do tire manufacturers see as the top factors affecting the commercial truck market? These are the four they cited.
Factor 1: COVID-19
Like most other aspects of life, the commercial truck tire market hasn’t been immune to the impacts of COVID-19.
One of the biggest shifts resulting from the pandemic is the rise in last-mile deliveries. As e-commerce sales and home deliveries spiked, delivery trucks and vans made more trips, resulting in more wear-and-tear on their tires.
“With the growth of last-mile delivery, compounded by the effects of COVID-19, commercial fleets are purchasing more tires for light- and medium-duty commercial trucks,” said Thomas Stacey, B2B product category manager - urban & regional for Michelin North America. “Grocery fleets, for example, are adding cargo vans to their fleets for home deliveries, adding 16-inch LT-metric and C-metric dimensions to their tire needs.”
Rob Williams, vice president of U.S. TBR sales for Hankook Tire America Corp., said sales have risen to such an extent, that they are outpacing other segments.
“We see the light- and medium-duty commercial vehicle tire market growing faster than heavy-duty truck tires, due to the significant growth in delivery of goods driven by the increase in e-commerce sales amid the pandemic,” he said.
The increase in online sales and home deliveries has changed buyer behavior for the long term, which means the need for last-mile deliveries and the tires to support them is here to stay.
Luka Lojk, VP of sales and marketing for Tyrata, noted that “increased tire consumption will also drive a need for more effective tire utilization, and new business models that are enabled by effective tire data and monitoring.”
With the critical role commercial fleets have played in keeping essential goods and services moving, Bridgestone Americas anticipates the last-mile segment to continue to grow at an accelerated rate.
“On demand, same-day delivery and the increasing preference of shoppers to have goods delivered straight to their homes have resulted in a growing number of traditional and non-traditional fleets supporting the final step in the consumer purchase journey. In fact, it’s estimated that smaller fleets make up about 75% of the market,” said Kyle Chen, channel manager for fleet and original equipment truck & bus radial tires at Bridgestone Americas. “This shift has had an impact on the commercial tire offering for these fleets with vehicles getting smaller but requiring higher load capacities. We’ve also seen a need for smaller commercial tires in the 16- to 19.5-inch range.”
Walter Weller, sr. vice president at Double Coin, said he is also seeing an increase in 17.5- and 19.5-inch rim diameter tires in the commercial market.
“With users such as FedEx, UPS, and Amazon pioneering this segment, there is more interest in using tires in these sizes that are suitable for retreading, which have all-steel casings,” Weller said.
Tom Fanning, vice president of sales and marketing for truck tires in North America at Continental, said the conditions delivery truck and van fleets operate in also change the traits fleets look for in tires.
“In last-mile delivery, tires are often subjected to high scrub environments, with lots of twisting and turning on city streets. This requires a cut-and-chip resistant tread compound to deliver the expected mileage. City driving means curbs, so a reinforced sidewall is a necessity,” he said. “Fleets looking to achieve their lowest overall driving cost should look for a retreadable casing. With an all-steel casing, fleets can retread the original tire to drive down costs over the tire lifecycle.”
While tire sales in the last-mile segment have increased, other segments are experiencing the opposite trend. For instance, public transportation took a hit as people quarantined and/or worked from home.
“According to statistics from Transit App, nationwide subway and bus ridership demand has dropped by 75% versus normal conditions. Washington D.C. has reported declines of 60% and New York City declines of 80% regarding public bus transportation, with other transit systems reporting similar declines in large cities across America,” Fanning said. “Many cities are also limiting the number of buses in use due to COVID-19 and the declining demand. The low ridership and lessened public bus transportation will certainly be felt in the urban segment of commercial tire replacement.”
Factor 2: Advancements in Data and Monitoring
Data might not be the first you think about regarding commercial tires, but it’s certainly an increasing trend. Today, fleets can track several tire data points including, but not limited to, tire pressure.
“Fleets of any size can benefit from periodically reviewing their tire data,” said Fanning of Continental. “It can help them identify potential maintenance improvements that could reduce their tire program costs, such as improving air pressure management or truck alignments. They can identify common causes of retread casing rejection which could potentially be prevented. The bottom-line benefit to the fleet should be measured in increased uptime and reduced tire program costs.”
Digital tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS), such as Continental's ContiConnect, can help fleets keep an eye on inflation while also taking the manual labor out of tire pressure inspections.
“Customers looking for the lowest overall driving cost should strongly consider a digital TPMS, as properly inflated tires get 15% longer tread life on the tire’s first life, and 20% longer casing life for retreading.” Fanning added. “Using intelligent tires to maintain proper air pressure can also result in $600-$800 in annual savings per tractor-trailer, according to the Technology & Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations.”
Data can also help commercial fleets monitor tread depth. For instance, Tyrata, a tire sensor and data management company, offers technology to monitor, track, and predict tire tread life, allowing fleets to see tread depth in real-time.
“Fleets are under tremendous cost pressures, and tires tend to be a large portion of maintenance expenditure. Yet, tire management lags behind modern data-driven monitoring and optimization, especially when it comes to tread depth” said Lojk of Tyrata. “This lag is largely due to difficulties in developing a tire tread depth system with fast ROI and minimal operational impact. This is exactly what Tyrata has set out to do with the Drive-Over System (DOS). DOS is a fully automated, low cost, and easy to use tread depth monitoring and analytics system” Lojk added.
Some platforms offer several data points together as an analytics suite.
“Some manufacturers offer proprietary tire management systems with predictive capabilities for reducing down time due to emergency tire breakdowns,” said Weller of Double Coin. “RFID technology is also available for tracking tires. All of these are designed to reduce fleets operating costs related to tires.”
For instance, Hankook Tire is developing intelligent tires using advanced tire sensor technology and analysis tools.
The company has paired up with Revvo, a Silicon Valley-based advanced smart tire technology and predictive analytics company, to integrate Hankook’s SmartFlex tires with Revvo’s tire technology and data analytics product suite. The program will be piloted with Hankook Tire customer Junk King, a North American eco-friendly junk removal and hauling company to provide critical, tire-specific data for 30% of the company’s vehicles in California.
“Solutions like this are expected to increase fleet management efficiency by acquiring actionable information such as tire tread life prediction, abnormal operation, maintenance intervals, settings optimization, and real-time alarms, to focus on safety and operational efficiency,” said Williams of Hankook.
The Bridgestone Mobility Solutions team has three major focuses that support fleets: smart sensing tires, advanced data analytics and platforms that deploy service. IntelliTire is a live TPMS tracking tool that uses a wheel- or valve stem-mounted sensor to communicate tire pressure and temperature at any position on the truck or trailer.
“Unlike normal TPMS sensors that only send alerts when a critical pressure threshold has been reached, IntelliTire can detect even slow leaks resulting from minor punctures or damage and can calculate the remaining time that a tire can be driven before an incident might occur,” said Chen of Bridgestone Americas. “That allows drivers to plan preventive maintenance before a potential emergency occurs.”
IntelliTire records historical pressure and temperature data so fleets can identify repetitive leak issues. If a dramatic pressure drop is reported, IntelliTire can also automatically request support from a technician, which Chen said can save as many as 40 minutes on roadside-related service calls.
“Leveraging these tools can increase the useful life of the tire casing, which can be tracked and managed for a fleet’s retread strategy,” Chen said. “Early awareness and early action are the keys to preventative maintenance, and we’re working to enable and empower our customers with tools that keep trucks on the road.”
Factor 3: EV Tire Needs
Commercial fleets have long relied on diesel fuel for power, but electrified trucks and vans are edging their way in. As a result, tire manufacturers are adapting their products to suit the unique needs of these types of vehicles.
“Certain segments of the commercial truck market are seeing a trend toward electrification. As the transport industry evolves toward electric vehicles, the usage conditions of tires may change along with the performance criteria that OEMs and fleets will prioritize,” said Stacey of Michelin. “Manufacturers will have to adapt the design of their tires and retreads to these new usage conditions to maximize the performance of the new vehicles.”
Michelin is working with OEs and fleets to equip the next generation of “New Energy Vehicles,” given the tire characteristics they require.
“The industry is entering a ‘bridge’ phase during which diesel and New Energy Vehicles will operate together on our roads. During the transition, we will continue to develop and produce tires that sustainably deliver the best value for fleets using both internal combustion engines and New Energy,” Stacey added.
Electrification is a trend that will impact many different segments of the market.
“For electric commercial trucks, tires are being specifically engineered to account for their usage patterns and unique loading and performance demands,” said Chen of Bridgestone. “Electric vehicles require tires that can handle the additional load capacity due to extra weight from batteries, provide lower rolling resistance for increased range, and offer wear life comparable to or sometimes even better than a standard tire.”
Continental’s Fanning said tire wear is something manufacturers have to pay particular attention to for EVs.
“In electric vehicles, you get the maximum torque when accelerating right from the very start. Vehicles with combustion engines take longer to get up to speed. Tires on electric vehicles can therefore be subject to greater levels of stress during acceleration, which in turn affects their endurance and wear values,” he said. “To keep the wear impact relatively low, it calls for modifications to both the tread pattern design and the tread compound.”
Tom Clauer, senior manager of commercial product planning for Yokohama Tire, is seeing these same developments.
“There is a trend of shallower tread depths, increased load carrying capacities and defense against higher torque drivetrains,” he said. “These advancements will specifically be targeting the EV or hybrid EV commercial trucks.”
Additionally, electric vehicle tire wear-rates vary from today’s internal combustion vehicles.
“The hard-earned tire wear experience that fleets have become accustomed to will simply not apply to EV tires, and effective tire maintenance will depend on access to scalable tire monitoring,” said Lojk of Tyrata.
Factor 4: EPA GHG2 Regulations
Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced phase two of its greenhouse gas regulation (GHG2), which tightens emissions regulations for heavy-duty trucks. Tires will play a role as fleets develop a strategy to meet these targets.
“OEM adoption of GHG regulations have pushed this issue to the forefront of the trucking industry and have been very impactful,” said Double Coin’s Weller. “However, air pressure maintenance is a key to further reducing GHG. An underinflated tire, no matter what the design, will not reduce greenhouse gases and in fact will dramatically increase them into the atmosphere.”
Fanning noted that digital tire pressure monitoring solutions, such as Continental's ContiConnect, can help keep tires inflated at optimal levels, which in turn improves fuel economy and reduces emissions.
“Continental has developed a digital tire monitoring solution specifically for GHG2 regulations. If the legislation stays as currently written, fleets will be able to meet all GHG2 regulations with just two simple items from Continental: the ContiPressureCheck Solo trailer TPMS and our extremely low rolling resistance tires. That’s it, just two products and your trailer can be GHG2 compliant. You won’t need an aerodynamic kit or any additional products.”
And, much like tire pressure monitoring, Tyrata has found significant environmental impacts through tire tread monitoring.
“Tyrata’s Drive-Over System helps fleets use tires for as long as safely possible – extending tire life by around 12%”, said Lojk of Tyrata. “Extending tire life directly results in fleets using tires longer, buying fewer tires, and using less rubber and raw materials. A case study on a 60-bus fleet showed the fleet was able to save 107 tires over a year – avoiding use of 1,700 kg of natural rubber, 26,000 liters of water, 4,100 kWh of energy, and 48 kg of greenhouse gases.”
In addition, Lojk noted that the environmental impact of tire life extension becomes exceptional when applied to the ~5 billion tires that are on the road today."
Jim Garrett, product manager for Michelin North America, Inc., said that, in addition to proper inflation, and tire tread, tire design also makes a difference.
“Government regulations continue to require lower and lower levels of rolling resistance on vehicles delivered from OEs. Tires are a key input to the EPA GHG2 regulation,” he said. “The keys with respect to tires is to be able to provide a tire that not only provides a low rolling resistance coefficient for improved contribution to lowering CO2, but also still meets the needs of the OEM, and ultimately, the end fleet that purchases the truck. The total performance of the tire still must meet these fleet needs in terms of durability, endurance, traction, and wear life. We intend to respect and exceed these requirements while not compromising on industry reference wear life and traction.”
Yokohama Tire’s Clauer agrees that tire design in the face of EPA regulations is a balancing act.
“Vocational operations are harsh on equipment as well as tires. Tire durability, mileage and traction have been the primary target for vocational operations. Upcoming regulations like GHG Phase 2 will continue to push lower rolling resistance products on fleets that have not yet considered the fuel efficiencies in tires a major point.”
The challenge is now on the tire manufacturing community to balance the best of a product’s durability, traction, and tread life, with improved fuel efficiencies.
“For the last several years, the market has gone back and forth with more fuel-efficient products vs. longer mileage products. Tightening regulations and technology advancements in tires have helped settle this. Commercial tires are now getting longer mileage and increased fuel efficiencies which help satisfy fleets’ requirements and fit into their purchasing plans,” Clauer added.
Bridgestone’s Chen agreed that, while challenging, finding a balance between meeting fleet performance requirements while also meeting EPA standards is possible.
“As the standards continue to get tougher, it presents a challenge for new tire development. Typically, improvement in one area of tire performance (for instance, rolling resistance) often requires a tradeoff in another area (such as tread wear or a tire’s life cycle),” he said. “When it comes to tire design, we are focused on optimizing every element of the tire to deliver expected performance characteristics while still meeting the EPA requirements. Customers do not want to compromise. With the EPA’s standards in mind, we are developing tires with new tread patterns, compounds, and even casing construction to try and reduce or eliminate the trade-offs.”