Any time a high-quality tiremaker invites you to test its latest techno-rubber marvel along with its top engineers, and they request that you show proof of $1 million in liability insurance, expect a good time.
Because to injure, maim or kill $1 million's worth of orange plastic cones that define a standard tire-testing race course, you'll have to be really ripping it up out there. This is kind of odd because the tire to be tested was Toyo Tires' new Versado, designed not for braining orange witch hats, but for silence.
To get traction in the tire market, you need a hook, and silence is a good one. Your typical engine, tires and wind create, on average, 60 decibels of "flight noise." Yet new car interiors have become sound chambers with up to 20 speakers, making silence not just golden, but double-platinum. So quiet tires are a big deal to deep-pocket audiophiles happy to spend nearly the cost of a car on their mobile stereo system. Hence the need for quiet tires like the Versado, a luxury tire in the $140-per-tire range.
Attractive. But how quiet is quiet?
Composer John Cage's 4'33" will be the ideal measure; Cage having recorded the sound of absolutely nothing for 4 minutes, 33 seconds, to deafening critical applause. And to the extent we hear the 4'33"'s symphony of silence when we test the Versado, we will determine the sonic success of the tire.
Back to the Future
Besides providing more silence (a contradiction in terms?) the future of tires may be in sight, sound and smell. For example, BFGoodrich introduced the "Scorcher," a tire whose treads are ribbed with yellow, blue and red. Kumho offers a tire that, on burnouts to church or the grocery store, smoke in different colors. Kumho's new Ecsta DX "aroma tire" models smell good, too. When the Mrs. revs up her Rabbit, dumps the clutch and sends its tires spinning on an 18-inch squiggle, the Ecsta DX will "burn" scented oils. Kumho has yet to debut an Old Spice aroma tire for men, but expect a low-profile Chanel No. 3 Ecsta DX for fans of the late great Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Consider, too, the frontier of all-weather tires, specifically those produced by Nokian, Finnish maker of Hakkapeliitta all-winter Tyres, tested 186 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Nokian makes i3 "informative, intelligent and interactive" winter tires employing "eco-studs" — not lean, green, dream dudes, but hard tread extrusions that bite into snowpack for better traction. Nokian also produces an avant-garde "canola oil tread compound" for better snow traction and "road snoop pressure watch," which "warns the driver of slippery road surfaces...over a radio receiver without the need to install any extra equipment in the vehicle."
Keeping a Low Profile
But what, you ask, of another hot tire topic — low-profile tires? How much can size matter? A lot. Toyo offers a 24-inch, low-profile Proxes 4 tire that, never mind the laws of God and physics, can be mounted on a conventional coupe or sedan. The advantage of these covered-wagon-wheel-size tires — other than making your Volvo station wagon resemble a pimp's Conestoga — is that they are so low-profile that they reduce destabilizing tire squirm almost by definition. And that definition is basically the sideways motion of a car allowed by the flexibility of the sidewalls: lower sidewalls, less squirm.
And of tire squirm itself? The future may be found in bicycle racing tires that now employ a "rice bran ceramic," otherwise known as pulverized (and previously discarded) rice husks — which act like "needles" or "micro-spike" and "pores" or "mini-suction cup" to eliminate tire squirm. It's a nano-world. Tomorrow's tires may even possess the microchip-enabled ability to "think." If not at the "I rotate, therefore I am" level, at least to determine the limits of performance.
Annoying Road Noise
Yet sound, or the lack of it, is where the real future tire action is. Most new tires — however high-speed rated, safe, long-lasting and asphalt-gripping — produce a subtle symphony of road racket.
This is because standard, smooth-walled circumferential grooves divide the tread to jet rain water away from the gripping surfaces of the tread, creating channeled "flutes" that carry "pipe resonance." Simplified, air shoots through the grooves, is accelerated by the forward motion of the tires and passes through four flutes, creating what Toyo identifies as 500Hz of low-grade "highly annoying" noise.
A problem perhaps solved on the Versados by serrating the grooves to muffle the noise and create a silent wall of soundlessness.
The Sound of Silence
Tires silent as the sun above. Rancho Santa Fe, California. Horse and Republican country. Flying across a shallow S swoop of freeway in a zippy Versado-shod $120,000 BMW made perhaps for bankers who like to rob banks (getaway acceleration and, inside, the feel of leather-clad gold vault security), nary a peep from our Versados. With 4'33" playing full blast in my head — requiring no stereo, no orchestra, in fact, nothing to not hear it — the only sound is that of the San Diego Union-Tribune's automobile critic Mark Maynard offering this review of the tires, "a breezy, balmy ride" as he gleefully waggles the steering wheel to send the bankerly BMW 760 slaloming within its lane. Verdict: You can feel the wheels careening across the freeway, but you can't hear them.
The $1 million insurance requirement was waived before we even arrived for the event. It turns out that we are not being treated to a racecourse, but to a quiet-tire lecture series. (In the words of young racecar driver Tanner Foust: "Drifting is the Howard Stern of motorsports.") Where the rubber meets the road is a complex place.
Just consider the legal and liability issues regarding future tire specs. What if you "test" a tire to its limits and it either succeeds or fails? If you can show that your new Big Mama Radical Radials can meet their 149-mph limit, it is likely you'll end up in traffic court. If you try and the Radical Radials can't, it is likely Big Mama will.
Likewise, you may be writing a $1,200 check to Michelin when you realize the rubber on your hi-pro tires has joined the pavement 12,000 miles after your Ferrari or hot-rod Chevy Cobalt left the showroom floor. High-performance tires owe their grip to the softness of their tread — and soft "NASCAR style" tread wears out fast. Thus, to become your neighborhood Jeff Gordon may be expensive. (Never put tough-grip racing tires on a soft suspension — it's a recipe for a rollover.)
Scary Bottom Line
Urban legend holds that tire companies long ago invented a formula for a hard rubber tire that will never wear out, and have kept it a secret for decades for fear of putting themselves collectively out of business. What makes this wives' tale nice is that it's sort of true. In the early 1980s, Bridgestone sold an "immortal" tire called the One Twelve V made of hockey puck-hard rubber that you could drive for almost the life of the car — up to 130,000 miles. The only drawback was that on wet pavement it was like driving on ice. A plaintiff lawyer's dream.
But those days are over. Future tires may soon have everything short of rubber brains, and are becoming nearly fail-safe products. Many baby boomer drivers remember driving on tires until the steel cords and white inner casing fabric were revealed under tread which was no longer there. They frequently found themselves beside the road, cranking jacks and turning lug nuts. But you? Fuggedaboudit. Barring the unforeseen nail in the road, you're as likely to get a flat within the first 20,000 miles as go to jail.
Instead of being concerned about the longevity of tires, consumers may increasingly be urged to choose a tire based on novelty issues such as smell, color or exotic-looking tread designs. Still, the informed consumer should never lose sight of the most important aspect of all: safety. Despite all the sizzle, tires are still where the rubber meets the road.