By Peter Taylor

The most recent round of anti-dumping duties on the Chinese truck tyres by the US has put the Chinese producers into a difficult and costly technical challenge. When they try to re-direct their tyres away from N. America to the European markets, they need to remain competitive by taking weight out of the product while maintaining its structural and performance integrity.

‘Bibendum’ the name given to the iconic tyreman says it all. As human obesity is more and more frowned upon, the poor fellow has been increasingly slimmed down by the Michelin PR department. In fact, in the last few decades, the poor chap has lost half his bulk.
There was a time when weight meant something. Reassurance, safety and quality even. Now it is a definite no, no.
I started thinking along these lines in a roundabout manner.
When it comes to tyre manufacturing, tonnage throughput is quite critical to the economics of any production unit given the high capital cost of tyre manufacturing. Reduce throughput and the economics of the operation quickly look rather sick. Traditionally, the Asian countries have tended to produce tyres that are considered overly heavy by the European and N. American standards and for a good reason. In their domestic markets, often poor road surfaces and severe over loading make ‘over design’ essential; but with that comes significant extra-cost.
The USA’s most recent round of ill-judged anti-dumping duties on the Chinese truck tyres illustrate the conundrum some Chinese producers find themselves just now as they try to re-direct their products away from N. America and into the competitive European market place. Some fortunate enough to have established overseas production facilities outside of China have been able to continue to supply N. America from these ‘off-shore’ locations; but others are not so lucky. Of course, the already over-supplied markets await. But over-supply brings with it a further reduction in prices which some of these over-engineered products find it difficult to meet. Taking weight out of a product while maintaining its structural and performance integrity can be a difficult and costly technical challenge for which the pay back may be small; it is the price, however, of being competitive in the European markets. Even to this, there is a downside as it further erodes factory throughput weights back home in China so undermining the operational viability of weaker players even more. This could be a bit of an end-game.

Long road to Europe

I hear that a British tyre dealer is to be prosecuted for complicity in bringing illegal migrants into the UK. Although this is probably an unwelcome ‘first’ for the tyre industry, many others have tried; and where some have succeeded, many others have failed.
Over the past few years, there have been and continue to have many attempts to smuggle migrants across the European borders and especially across the natural barrier — the English Channel. Many individuals have died in the process through suffocation, hypothermia in refrigerated trucks or from injuries on rail tracks and a myriad other places; but this tyre-related effort was just a little different and really quite ingenious.
As I think I have reported in the past here in Britain and Ireland there is an active trade in second-hand car tyres originating mainly from Germany where tyre-conscious motorists often change tyres well before the legal minimum. The result is that these not-quite worn-out products are resold in the UK and elsewhere.
Recently, an ingenious merchant filled a container with less than legal part-worn tyres having stuffed a score or more human beings in first. It did not work because of thermal imaging cameras employed by the authorities spotted human cargo amongst all that rubber and the organisers of the shipment arrested. Needless to say, the defence was that he could not remember where on the Continent he had bought the tyres or from whom was rejected by the court. The fact he could not come up with any paperwork for this shipment of products he claimed were intended for resale also found no favour with the Judge. For the plaintiff the killer blow, however, was almost all the tyres in the container were worn beyond the legal limit and so were waste and of no commercial value at all!

Minimum tread

In Europe, the minimum tread depth for normal car tyres is set at 1.6 mm. Rules for winter tyres vary.
Nevertheless, many of our tyre retailers have long held the belief that minimum tread depth should be increased in the interests of road safety, presumably in the wet when tread is most needed.
Such a move would have several consequences. The bars set into the grooves of every tyre are currently positioned at 1.6 mm or there about (tyre making is still not quite an exact science) so changing this would be awkward and certainly very costly for manufacturers. The life of the product would also be reduced although some retailers might see this as a benefit. Lastly, there would be an environmental cost should tyres be replaced more frequently than at present.
The new tyre manufacturers have long been wary of this particular retail-driven demand and for the very reasons I have stated. There is also a reluctance to admit that claims about tyre performance might not be consistent over the full life of the product in every case.
Now Michelin, Europe’s dominant manufacturer, has come forward with a quite categorical statement in favour of the status-quo. We, they say “maintain that the current legal limit of 1.6 mm is perfectly suited to modern motoring” and go on to oppose a change in the current law. Their rationale for this position is that ‘new’ tyres do not really exist in practice because they begin to be worn-down from the moment they are first used; consistent performance should be delivered right down to that indicator bar set at 1.6 mm.
So that is it then.

The VW scandal

Far from going away, the VW emissions scandal rumbles on. To recap, some VW engines were programmed to favourably control their emissions when these engines sensed they were subject to test.
All along, the popular assumption has been that somewhere on the vehicle there was secreted some little ‘black box’ which performed this task. The truth is more sinister because there never were any little boxes, black or otherwise. Instead, it is now claimed that VW actually illegally modified its engine software to perform the required task and that this software component was supplied by German auto components manufacturer Bosch. The argument is that Bosch must have understood the purpose of this particular component and is therefore complicit with VW. In a litigious society like the US, this reasoning is gaining traction; so it is now more than likely that the Bosch name will also be drawn into the legal arguments. So far Bosch itself has said very little, only stating blandly that the products it supplies (to the motor industry) are made to specifications demanded by its car-maker customers and could not know precisely how they were to be used. This position will, no doubt, be the subject of some vigorous legal arguments.