Efforts to promote special winter or ‘cold weather’ tyres have gathered pace this last one year or two as Europe’s tyre industry has tried strenuously to promote their greater use. Unfortunately, while Winter itself may be a defined season, winter weather observes none of the rules of the calendar. While the winters of 2009 and 2010 were indeed very cold in much of Europe, those of 2011 and 2012 are turning out to be less so.
The term ‘winter tyres’ is indeed a misleading one which is why, a decade or more ago I, for the first time, coined the term ‘cold weather tyre’ which is what we mostly get in much of Europe. Except in the North, heavy snow falls are the exception more than the rule, but the old verbiage dies hard and we keep reverting to the term ‘winter tyre’.
The fitment of cold weather tyres is a prudent option during Europe’s colder months, but they do come at some cost as the motorist knows all too well; so, when the weather fails to chill, too many motorists are tempted to take a chance with their regular summer tyres and hold out till Spring.
Changing tyres twice a year is expensive; ideally an additional set of wheels is required and then there is the question of where to store the spare set. In much of Germany and Scandinavia, the retail trade has the business well-handled and will store these on behalf of customers. Elsewhere, it is just not happening; so the marketing opportunity is being lost and an already reluctant consumer is further turned off by all the negatives. Meanwhile, if this turns out to have been one of history’s milder winters, our wholesalers and retailers will be left with a lot of seasonal rubber on their hands.
The logic of fitting cold weather tyres is irrefutable even if they only come into their own for a few weeks of the year. The industry has made noticeable efforts to publicise their clear safety mobility benefits, but, like so many things, has yet to solve the marketing issues they raise. Until it does, these excellent products will too often be hostage to consumer reluctance and the vagaries of
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Expecting too much?
The pressure on tyre designers to come up with products that meet ever more prescriptive design and performance parameters may just be counter-productive. Features like noise, rolling resistance (economy) and wet grip are all, to some extent, mutually exclusive. Tyre design, it is true, has made huge advances in the past fifty years, but still it is essentially a compromise, a trade-off between competitive objectives and thus the more over-specific we make our products, the more we may be narrowing their range of application. Winter and cold weather tyres are good examples. The deeper self-cleaning treads of true
winter tyres are inherently noisier than regular tyres while the ‘stickier’ cold weather tyre compounds, to some extent, reduce fuel economy. The best tyre is often a
compromise and this should be seen as a virtue not a quality to be derided or seen as second rate. A tyre that scores high on one attribute such as rolling resistance might not provide the safer all round performance most of us need.
Unfortunately though, Europe’s current regulatory processes are leading us to eschew the worthy ‘all round’ performer in favour of highly promoted single attribute products.
And there are other frequently forgotten qualities too which we forget at our peril. What happened to the need for longevity or easy recyclability. For that matter why not take another look at producing better ‘all seasons’ tyres. We have become too narrowly focussed.
Awaiting historic moment
The problem with tyre recycling is that the challenge never quite meets the opportunity. In Europe, even though we have long signed up to obligations to reuse or recycle virtually all of our waste tyre arisings, the ways in which we do this still somehow lack conviction. As we all know, problems demand instant solutions, so what do we do? We chip them for fuel, (Tyre Derived Fuel-TDF), we granulate, and in the case of truck tyres at least, we retread them. Of course, retreading is recycling, but at the end of the day that tyre casing still has to be disposed of in some way. The ways in which we do this are not wholly satisfactory to purists like myself. Far too many old tyres are recycled in ways which demean their true potential value.
The first thing to say about tyre rubber is that it has a high calorific value, similar to that of coal. For this reason, it is more than ever in demand as an energy substitute, but this fact obscures its true potential value. Tyres, new or old, have locked within them a wealth and valuable materials, steel, carbon, natural and synthetic oils and rubber and more; but how to recover them. The number of projects and processes mooted over the years have been legion, so too have been the over optimistic claims and new venture failures.
So many have there been; in fact, there is an inbuilt scepticism amongst most of us each and every time someone new pops up with the magic solution. We need to be on our guard about this for, sooner or later it will happen and we must strive to be ready to recognise the moment when it comes. With our world working its way through several billion tyres a year, it will be a truly historic moment.
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More ‘thinking in the round’
Although I have said it before, the moment seems right to say it again; tyre manufacturers should be giving much more thought to the total life cycle of the product they make. At least truck tyres, many of which are retreaded at least once, have a partial life cycle, but for car tyres it is still too often a case of new to old to rubbish dump in many parts of the world.
Of course, many countries do now require that waste tyres are re-used or recovered ‘beneficially’, but surely as I have argued earlier in this issue, new approaches,
new breakthroughs are needed and these may not happen without greater engagement from the new tyre manufacturers themselves.
Our new tyre developers regularly deliver engineering miracles in the way they regularly push forward the performance frontiers of the products they develop, but they are, of course, working to a brief and that brief stops there. Better grip, lower rolling resistance, quietness, ever more refined handling, pressure monitoring. yes, the list is a long one, but where is ultimate recyclability? It just does not feature in most design parameters.
So these triumphs of engineering having performed their design-life task are discarded for some secondary fate as an alternative fuel, shred or crumb. It is then left to others, almost exclusively outside the tyre industry to seek new and more valuable ways of unlocking the various elements contained in all these hundreds of millions of tyres.
Surely, it is time that the new tyre manufacturers themselves took a leaf from the pages of nature itself and started to consider whether there are not in fact ways in which this great product of ours could be engineered to endow it with life cycle qualities that conferred much easier recyclability than at present? Engineering or chemical ‘keys’ that would facilitate the recovery of all these valuable resources, natural and synthetic, locked within. Were this to prove possible we would truly be able to say that tyres had a credible life-cycle all of their own.