Fuel-efficiency gains for commercial vehicles can come from many areas, the powertrain and aerodynamics chief among them. But where the rubber meets the road—the tires—is another significant area targeted for improved efficiency, not to mention durability. One company working in this space, Yokohama Tire Corp. (YTC), is currently building its first commercial tire plant in the U.S. The new facility in West Point, MS, is on schedule to open in October 2015, and is expected to produce up to one million commercial tires annually. The plant will solidify YTC’s ability to grow its dealers’ business with new products and ample supply, according to Rick Phillips, Yokohama Senior Director, Commercial and OTR Sales. Phillips provides his thoughts on the Mississippi plant, as well as what the commercial tire market can expect in the coming years.
How will the new Mississippi plant benefit Yokohama?
We have always had an aggressive growth plan. In 2013, Yokohama outpaced the market and grew its market share over 2012. The Mississippi plant will allow us to bring our products to the market for all channels even faster and with greater efficiency. Logistically, Mississippi is an ideal location for us. It fits perfectly with our distribution strategy and long-range plans.
Which commercial tires will be produced there?
We have an initial plan and will continue to look at the overall production plan. A lot is based on new product development and when some of them will be ready to release.
What are some of YTC’s latest products?
We introduced [at the Mid-America Trucking Show in March] two new ultra wide base (UWB) drive tires: the 902L and 709L, which will both come in size 445/50R22.5. Plus, we unveiled a new coach/bus all-position tire, the 104ZR Spec-2, which will come in size 315/80R22.5. UWB tires such as the 902L and 709L are part of YTC’s long-term plan. We’re seeing more of a demand for them because of the weight savings, which is where fleets can find an immediate benefit. The 104ZR Spec-2…also delivers longer treadwear, as well as low rolling resistance and enhanced traction. That’s why it’s ideal for coach and regional/long-haul tour bus applications. Spec-2-designated tires feature enhanced technology—especially in the compound—to provide optimal performance.
How is the EPA’s SmartWay program going?
It’s going well. Yokohama is a big proponent of the SmartWay program because it promotes environmental responsibility and fuel-efficient tires, which we practice and produce…We started this initiative several years ago and it’s something we continue to this day. We currently have nine SmartWay-verified tires and will continue to use our technology to make our commercial tires more fuel-efficient without sacrificing performance.
How much more fuel efficient can tires become, and how can it be achieved?
When you think about it, there is already an amazing amount of technology put into today’s commercial tire. Consider the fact that a single tire carries the loads it carries, at the speeds it travels, and can be retreaded two to three times over a lifespan of up to seven years, being very fuel efficient all the while. It requires a lot of R&D to make even slight improvements. At Yokohama, this is an everyday commitment for us and we will continue to explore creative new ways to improve the performance of our tires.
What commercial tire trends can we expect in the future?
We need to look at this in two ways. First, we continually push to develop ‘new technologies’ to produce quality that will help fleets reduce their cost of operation and reduce their overall cost per mile. This could be increasing the original treadlife or making the casing more durable so it is more retreadable. And we are constantly looking at ways to lower the rolling resistance so the truck consumes less fuel.
Second, we use the combinations of ‘existing technologies’ to produce specific products that perform well in specific applications. One example of this is the increase in intermodal shipments. This scenario for moving freight cross country, with combination of truck and rail, increases the demand for regional, shorter haul routes vs. the previous scenario where long-haul trucks carried the entire load. As a result, you are now seeing more regional, high scrub products to satisfy this demand.
What are some of today’s hot industry topics and how will they affect the industry?
We are dependent on the trucking industry and freight movement is tied directly to the economy. Most of the headwinds facing the economy have decreased and there might be a nice growth trend ahead, barring a catastrophic event. The driver shortage and government regulations, such as CSA (compliance, safety, and accountability), will have an impact on the industry, but to what extent, everyone is still watching closely.
With respect to driver shortage, one industry estimate puts it at around 200,000. This could worsen even more if housing construction jobs increase and drivers switch to construction truck-driving jobs. Regarding CSA, it helps keep drivers safe and fleets accountable, which is important. They have to keep their equipment up to certain standards and drivers have certain guidelines, too. It’s a big undertaking but it’s all about safety, and both sides will have to learn to manage it effectively.
As far as the overall market, there has been some fluctuation the last few years. Since coming out of the recession, the years 2010 and 2011 satisfied a lot of pent-up demand. Unfortunately, 2012 took a dip as the recovery wasn’t as robust. Last year though, we saw a slight increase that we expect will continue throughout 2014. The economy is ready for a growth spurt.