Michelin Continues Its Battle Against the Gas Pump

Tire manufacturer Michelin this week held its almost annual international forum on sustainable mobility in Rio de Janeiro. The event, called the Challenge Bibendum, offered a busy schedule of round-table discussions, debates and demonstrations—but ultimately the tire company is interested in what happens when the rubber hits the road.

Choosing Low Rolling Resistance Tires

Calculating the costs and the payback for a more expensive tire is also tricky.

The sustainability question is a major issue for Michelin and other tire makers. The number of cars in the world is expected to grow from 900 million today to 1.5 billion or more by 2030, according to Michelin research and development chief Terry Gettys. As a result the company has set the goal of reducing the mass of tires by 50 percent by that time. In this way, the carbon footprint of tires will not grow along with the number of vehicles on global roads. But how do you reduce the mass without sacrificing safety, durability or ride quality?

One way is to change the overall shape of tires by making them exceptionally tall and narrow, or fat and short. In Rio, Michelin showed prototypes of two such odd-looking tires, which may be off into the future—if consumers would ever accept such a novel approach.

An ad for the Michelin Energy Save A/S tire, which recently earned high marks from Consumer Reports.

The more immediate and practical challenge is reducing rolling resistance, especially in support of hybrid and electric cars. Low rolling resistance helps hybrid cars go further on a gallon of gas, and helps pure electric cars extend their range.

Hybrid and EV owners are motivated to go with low resistance, but the engineering challenge is not unique to those vehicles. Terry Gettys, director of the research and development process of the Michelin Group, said, “Fundamentally, designing tires for electric vehicles is not different than for vehicles with engines.” He said that car manufacturers are looking for new tires tuned to electric drive and urban environments, but that design fundamentals “are not changed.”

The Challenge Bibendum has been running for 12 years, and apparently this kind of future-looking event and research has paid dividends—both for the company and consumers. Consumer Reports continually puts new tires through its tests, and recently gave high marks to the Michelin Energy Saver A/S. It ranked second overall—with only one tire getting higher marks: the Michelin HydroEdge.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, rolling resistance accounts for about 4 percent of a vehicle’s fuel use in city driving and about 7 percent on the highway. The DOT says that replacing high-rolling resistance tires with low resistance can result in about $100 in annual fuel savings-and potentially hundreds of dollars over the life of the tire.

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  • veek

    Our hybrid Escape originally came with Continental “low rolling resistance eco tires” and they were the worst tires we can remember using recently. The Contis constantly felt like they were hydroplaning, they definitely did hydroplane in the wet, straight-line performance was dodgy in any weather, and we just never quite trusted them. Consumer Reports backed up the lack of performance and braking relative to the tires on the standard Escape, and this may help explain the higher accident rate for hybrids noted on a long-past column on HybridCars. No matter how “green” they were advertised to be, they just seemed dangerous, and their only advantage was that they encouraged us to drive more slowly. When it finally came time to replace them (at just over 30,000 miles) we chose Goodyear Triple-Treads and were amazed at the difference. We have lost about 2 mpg but the difference in performance (including braking) makes us very leery about going with a tire simply because it is marketed as “green.” If that’s what it takes to be “green,” we’ll seek some other solution. Green should not be incompatible with safety, and I sure hope the newer generation of eco-tires are significantly better.

  • Bruno Suplina

    I fully agree. The Dunlop tires on my Honda Civic Hybrid were good for fuel mileage but weren’t very good at giving me grip on icy roads and wet surface as much as pure winter tires which I still haven’t taken off the car yet. I am willing to sacrifice a couple of miles per gallon drop for the traction I am receiving via proper tires for our climate(i.e Alberta,Canada).

  • Walter Lee

    2010 July Consumer Reports rates a group of Low Rolling Resistant Tires which are more expensive than regular tires. Michelin’s Energy Saver Tire was one of the more expensive tires but it was also recommended as one of the better overall choices in the group. From what I’ve read in other forums, LRR tires tend to have two engineering compromises – 1) they don’t grip the road as well as most tires (especially on wet payement), and 2) the tread tend to wear out faster in performance driving scenarios (fast accelerations/hard stopping). On the plus side, LRR tires can give a car a 2 mpg increase in fuel efficiency.

  • Joe

    It’s where the rubber meets the road and the bumper of the car in front of you. Safety is more important than mpg’s. Especially, when you rear-end a sue happy person with dollar signs in their eyes!

  • LeoLeo

    Thread life and speed ratings exist on every tire to give the consumer an idea of what they are buying. It would be great to have some sort of comparative standard for rolling resistance too. Otherwise, labels like “Low resistance” doesn’t mean much to compare tires between manufacturers.

  • Anonymous

    hopefully michlen will continue to develop the twheel to a point where it can be used for every vehicle. the twheel has the potential to be lighter and will never be under inflated. this would go a long way to increase fuel savings without compromising safety