Guess whose tire team is made up of scientists who study the chemistry of rubber and who are researching materials found in other products, such as athletic shoes, to see if that could translate to automotive tires? That’s right, it’s Ford. Because even before we lived in a world full of heinous fuel prices, Ford was already looking to tires as a way to improve fuel economy, which has resulted in the development of specially engineered low-rolling-resistance tires.
Now, rolling resistance is one of those phrases that gets thrown around when the topic of fuel economy comes up, but what does it actually mean? Well, it’s the measure of the force required for the tire to travel down the road; tire tread is the main contributor to rolling resistance. The three key attributes to any road tire tread are traction or grip, wear and rolling resistance. Therefore, the challenge with building a better tire is that often improving one attribute may compromise another, such as a tire with better grip may have a higher rolling resistance and, therefore, energy consumption.
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 the Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan, they work closely with Ford Chassis Engineering and Vehicle Engineering as well as leading tire companies to test new compounds, new tread designs and other innovations. “We are developing our own in-house expertise on tire materials and compounds,” said Dr. Cynthia Flanigan, group leader for materials research. “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.” Current research is focused on the tread cap – literally where the rubber meets the road.
All four Ford industry-leading 40-plus-mpg cars – Fiesta SFE, Focus SFE, Fusion Hybrid and Lincoln MKZ Hybrid – come fitted with special fuel-saving tires. In addition, the 2011 models of the Taurus, Edge, Fusion and Explorer have tires with enhanced technology that helps improve fuel economy. The C-MAX Energi, C-MAX Hybrid and Focus Electric will be the next three vehicles to have the low-resistance tires. A 10 percent improvement in rolling resistance leads to a fuel-economy improvement of as much as 2 percent, according to the Ford tire experts. When it comes to a performance car like the Mustang, fuel efficiency still matters. The 2011 coupe is the first car to achieve a combination of 305 horsepower and 31 mpg.
Ford has also 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. And the research into the other rubber parts could even provide new solutions for tires. “Rubber is used throughout cars – weather strips, gaskets, interior trim, underbody shields, floor mats – so our research could benefit those as well,” Cynthia said.