OEMs could benefit from cross-vehicle technology

You've probably seen automobile ads that relate "high performance" cars and parts to the commuter specials you and your family drive every day. The question is: Can the innovations in technology, materials and processing used for high-performance car tires be applied to truck tires? I think the answer in many cases is yes.

Low-profile tires, for example, were used on performance cars long before we began seeing them on commercial vehicles. Shallow and wider tread tires are another example. They first appeared as options on high-performance cars, where they were touted for their contribution to improved handling. The shallow tread concept was later used to address the concerns of irregular wear on slow-wear-rate wheel positions, such as the rear axles of front wheel drive cars and minivans.

This "less delivers more" concept has been applied directly to trailer tires, delivering much improved wear, with the added benefit of improved fuel economy.

An even more convincing example is the progression of the entire radial ply concept, which first came to our attention on imported sports cars. We now spec them on over-the-road trucks.

This is not to say that all technological advances in high-performance car tires make sense for truck tires. Directional tread patterns, for example, which were designed to deliver improved wet-traction handling on lighter weight cars, would significantly complicate routine tire rotations and limit dual wheel fitment options on the drive and trailer axle tires of heavy trucks.

But there is a significant difference in the way the car and truck industries in North America operate that affects the transfer of cross-vehicle technology.

The auto industry has a long history of getting designers for tires, as well as other components, involved in vehicle programs early in the new model schedule. Using a systems-engineering approach, the auto industry views individual components as integral parts of major vehicle subsystems. Tires, for example, are seen as part of the suspension, braking and handling systems.

In contrast, heavy-truck OEMs are for the most part still component assemblers. Although there have recently been some rumblings of change, which could herald potential benefits for end users, we need more.

The real challenge will be to combine the R&D resources of component suppliers with those of truck OEMs in a customer-focused environment that rewards meaningful and measurable contributions. Some evidence of this was demonstrated in the development of antilock braking systems.

It seems possible, for example, that vehicle aerodynamic and suspension engineers could work with tire designers to reduce splash and spray from heavy trucks. And if designers of truck electrical systems worked with tire and sensor engineers, wouldn't it be possible to develop reliable, cost-effective low-tire-inflation warning systems for truck dashboards?

It also seems possible that suspension designers, tire and wheel engineers, and manufacturing/assembly experts working in concert could improve ride and handling characteristics - perhaps making it possible to attract a more diverse driver base.

Moving to a more systems-oriented approach would not be easy or inexpensive. But if it resulted in benefits to individual end-users, as well as the industry as a whole, wouldn't it also mean rewards and competitive advantage for the participants?

The technology's out there, let's use it.