DEARBORN – Ford has established a unique cross-functional team whose mission is to develop innovative new tires that improve safety, boost fuel economy and enhance vehicle handling.
Located at Ford's Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, the dedicated tire team works closely with Ford's Chassis Engineering and Vehicle Engineering functions, as well as leading tire companies, to test new compounds, new tread designs and other innovations.
Most automakers don't influence significantly the development of the tires they use. But tires -- the only component that touches the road while you drive -- are one of the most important components of any vehicle.
Because tire tread is the main contributor to rolling resistance, which is simply the measure of force needed to roll the wheel forward, the team has focused its immediate attention on this part of the tire.
The three key attributes to any road tire tread are traction or grip, wear and rolling resistance. The challenge to building a better tire is that often improving one attribute may compromise another. A tire with better grip, for example, may have a higher rolling resistance and therefore, energy consumption.
“Traditionally, the challenge of improving tire treads is to expand all facets of the ‘magic triangle’ – grip, wear and rolling resistance. We want to improve all attributes without compromising others,” said Dan Haakenson, technical expert, Vehicle Dynamics. “Our goal is to anticipate, innovate and incorporate technologies to make Ford a leader in fuel economy and to help deliver superior low-rolling-resistance tires to customers faster than anyone else.”
Driving toward a no-compromise solution
A no-compromise attitude to fuel efficiency has been a key benefit for Ford customers. The 2011 Ford Mustang coupe, for example, is the first car to achieve the combination of 305 horsepower and 31 mpg highway. The all-new 2011 Ford Fiesta and 2012 Ford Focus usher in a new era of what a small car can achieve in terms of in-vehicle technology and a fun-to-drive experience as well as fuel economy.
Producing no-compromise vehicles has its roots in an exhaustive, focused examination of each component – like tires – to optimize design, systems and materials.
“While Ford doesn’t manufacture tires, we do want to become smart buyers for our customers,” said David Rohweder, global chief engineer for Tire and Wheel Engineering.
“Fuel economy is on the minds of consumers globally more than ever and is a critical factor for most when purchasing new vehicles,” said Rohweder. “Ford is leading the drive for innovation for fuel economy, and one mechanism to do that is through the research program on advanced tire technologies.”
“We are developing our own in-house expertise on tire materials and compounds,” said Dr. Cynthia Flanigan, technical leader of elastomers research. (An elastomer is something that can be stretched or deformed, then returns to close to its original shape – like a rubber band.) “And through our research we want to be the catalyst, working with chemical and rubber suppliers as well as tire manufacturers, to pull new technologies and solutions through the industry.”
Flanigan and her team are focused on the materials aspect of tire construction. While the actual recipes of these complex systems are often proprietary, the Ford research team seeks new technical advances for tires in the future.
Drive for research began two years ago
The mandate to become more engaged with tire suppliers and manufacturers and to better understand the benefits of low-rolling-resistance tires has been under way since after the last spike in fuel prices in the summer of 2008.
“Based on the feedback we received from chemical suppliers and tire companies, Ford is now at the forefront of understanding tire technologies on a deeper level and pushing hard for new technologies,” Flanigan said.
Flanigan’s group, which is part of Research and Innovation, was formed in October 2009 and works with Ford's Vehicle Engineering and Chassis Engineering teams to ensure potential tire material solutions can be implemented in Ford vehicles and exceed customer expectations.
“Each of our tires needs to satisfy customer demand for excellent grip in any condition dry or wet, for low noise levels, tires that handle well and have good rolling resistance,” Haakenson said.
Current research is focused on the tread cap – literally where the rubber meets the road.
“By being more involved upstream, we think we can be a driver for innovation,” said Flanigan.
Looking beyond tire industry for solutions
Ford is expanding its expertise on other components and is applying this knowledge to the tire research project.
“Ford is doing research in a wide breadth of materials areas,” Flanigan said. “Current research spans from the molecular level to sustainable raw materials. There’s a whole portfolio of research Ford does that we can bring to the table.”
For example, Ford has developed technologies for soy-based seats, and this team is applying these concepts to tires and other rubber products. The research team has already developed patent-pending technologies for EPDM (Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer – used in weather stripping) rubber using bio-oils.
“Rubber is used throughout cars – weather strips, gaskets, interior trim, underbody shields, floor mats – so our research could benefit those as well,” Flanigan said.
Ford research into other rubber parts could provide new solutions for tires. Additionally, the Ford team is researching beyond the automotive field for new ideas, and continues to lead the way for innovative material solutions.
“We’re casting a wide net as we seek innovative and beneficial solutions for our customers,” Flanigan said.