DETROIT – Auto makers “obsessed” with increasing fuel economy in their vehicles are actively working with tire makers to develop the latest tire technologies, says Peter Selleck, chairman and president-Michelin North America.

OEMs “are partnering with us in ways they’ve never partnered with us before,” he tells WardsAuto at the recent North American International Auto Show.

The executive says in the past tire makers were given specifications by auto makers but left to develop the tire on their own. Now, finding the best solution is becoming a more cooperative effort.

“We’re working much more upstream with them than ever before in the development process,” he says.

Selleck says auto makers view low-rolling-resistance tires as a less-expensive alternative than advanced powertrains and aerodynamic improvements to meet fuel-economy goals.

Since Michelin launched the first low-rolling-resistance tires in 1992, the technology has improved greatly and has the potential to dramatically slash a vehicle’s fuel consumption.

On passenger vehicles, the rolling resistance of tires accounts for 20% of the vehicle’s fuel consumption, Selleck says, noting the percentage is higher on light trucks. “So a gain in rolling resistance on a light-truck tire gains even more fuel economy,” he says.

Low-rolling-resistant tire technology has evolved greatly since its inception, Selleck says, noting early offerings required sacrificing performance for fuel economy.

“With the first tires that came out, there was a significant tradeoff in getting the fuel economy but sacrificing adherence and wear,” he says. “But now, with three more generations to develop the tire, we’ve been able to come back with our total performance.”

Michelin’s current projects include developing a tire that has half of the tread but wears twice as long as today’s low-rolling-resistant tire.

“The most fuel-efficient tire is a bald one” because it offers minimal rolling resistance. “The question is how we can develop a tire that only needs half a tread and is at a much better level of rolling resistance,” Selleck says. “So we’re developing technology to allow for that.”

In another effort to increase fuel economy, auto makers increasingly are omitting spare tires in order to reduce weight. To accommodate this trend, Michelin is developing zero-pressure tires, or run-flats, that allow a vehicle to be driven for miles following a blowout.

“Those tires have been on the market for a while, but at first there was a big tradeoff in handling and fuel economy because of the thickened sidewalls,” Selleck says. “But (over) several generations we’ve learned how to do it better, and there’s more demand for those tires.”

Michelin is devoting more resources to research and development of fuel-saving technology than at any other time in its 100-plus-year history, he says. The tire maker also is investing more in brick and mortar, with five plants now under construction, including two in China and sites in India, Brazil and South Carolina.

Emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil are good for business but offer unique design challenges, Selleck says, citing commercial-truck tires for the Chinese market as an example.

“In the U.S. there is an 80,000-lb. (36,300-kg) weight limit on 18-wheelers,” he says. “They have the same limit in China, but it’s not enforced and many trailers are 100% overloaded, so you have to have tires designed to take that abuse.”

Poor road conditions in developing nations also are a challenge that must be overcome. A newly developed Michelin technology, dubbed Tweel tires, may offer a solution, but for now the tires are used only on construction equipment.

Unlike traditional pneumatic tires, Tweel tires consist of an airless, belted tread that sits on a polyurethane platform.

They are tougher than traditional tires and able to roll over rough surfaces such as those found on construction sites. The technology is in its infancy, however, and Selleck says “right now it’s not clear if you go over 30 mph (48 km/h) if you want that product on your car.

“But there are regions of the world where cars don’t go very fast,” he says. “So maybe in emerging markets with bad road conditions, this is a different solution.”

bpope@wardsauto.com