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Tire Technology: A Unique Wheelhouse

Some experts fear the puncture-proof tire may burst the car park wide open. Others are optimistic. Either way, the leading suppliers should play a role in supporting their stakeholders’ interests.
Thursday, August 1, 2019 - 06:00
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If road trials succeed by September, Michelin will have reinvented the tire—literally! Called UPTIS for unique puncture-proof tires systems because it never requires air, this technology developed jointly with General Motors (GM) promises to end blowouts and improve driver safety. By 2024, this duo hopes to make this hybrid tire and wheel ready for drivers so long as their fleet of electric cars (EVs) can handle Michigan’s roughshod routes. How UPTIS pans out may yield delightful outcomes, disruptive endings or both for the aftermarket. With five years left, it’s time to start agitating about the potential impacts.

News outlets are hailing why UPTIS’s resin embedded fiberglass materials that fuse the spokes into the outer ring will bring long-term good. Right off the bat costs will fall from the obsolescence of the required four air pressure sensors. Autos can expect added mileage from the hardened rubber that conserves waste—a win for environmental activism. They will weigh less for the dependence on a spare tire, jack, and emergency repair kit will fade.

 Car and Driver magazine columnist, Sebastian Blanco, weighed in on whether Michelin or GM will extend UPTIS to all makes powered by the internal combustion engine. “I see no reason why UPTIS cannot be applied to any vehicle,” explained Blanco. When asked about what the future bodes for the tire fitters or those manufacturers supplying them, he demurred.

“Because we are still in the prototype stage’, responded Libby Wall, spokeswoman for GM, ‘we cannot discuss the specifics regarding fitment, maintenance, and marketplace maintenance operations.” Her e-mail added, “Testing will begin on the [Chevrolet] Bolt EV. GM and Michelin will evaluate the UPTIS prototype for other vehicles, which will be announced at later dates.” A tight-lipped, wait-and-see stance seems a predictable rationale for this giant who must protect their business interests. 

However, in the mind of a longstanding TPMS expert who knows the aftermarket, he sees GM’s posture as an erosion to the independent installers’ right to repair movement that for years has been advocated by the Auto Care Association who badly wants the vehicle manufacturers to share crucial repair data. Throughout the warranty period, noted this insider who is close to this technology, the independent installer risks from being locked out. For a mechanic to properly treat UPTIS, “The aftermarket will need the original equipment manufacturers (OE) for repair information and the tools on how to repair.” There is no telling how fast the transfer of education of UPTIS maintenance and the availability of equipment to service a car will reach the independent repair side. He speculated that when UPTIS becomes officially available, the OE designers will have validated the first generation of their platform that will slow the introduction of another airless tire brand into the market. Michelin holds 50 patents. According to this scenario, the price of owning an UPTIS could rise faster than a traditional tire. It is a risk to the aftermarket that the dealerships will take away market share. 

UPTIS also symbolizes digital disruption. A general manager for an international supplier of tire repair products who requested anonymity asserted that experts of all stripes with crystal balls are emitting mixed signals about the implications of airless tires. Citing industry analyses on digital mobility, the carmakers have been placing their bets on personal electrified and autonomous vehicles (AV). What this means for UPTIS, said this source, is that “personal usage is going to change because everyone will be focused on uptime.” Combustion engines consisting of cargo vans and pick-up trucks, he suggested, will populate the construction and delivery industries, but offered no insight on how quickly those vehicles would switch wheel types. When EVs and AVs become more visible, he concluded, the dealerships will gain an advantage with access to proactive diagnostic software systems to interface with the connected auto. Filling in the service gap, chain store installers that can afford to pay for best practices and equipment will be positioned to swap out UPTIS and related parts. As the offline world converges onto the online space the independent repair shops will dwindle.  Unless meaningful intervention strikes the motorist will be left with less choices where they service their wheels. If the self-sufficient repairer cannot acquire the tools for UPTIS and its accessories, this service channel may fall into a world of hurt.

Sensata Technologies competes in the $24 billion global automotive sensor market with active ties with the aftermarket and the OE segment. A category captain in selling tire pressure sensors (TPMS), Sensata is firmly seated to shape this conflict. For many years they have evolved with efficient vehicle electrification. One question put to Jacki Lutz, who leads Sensata’s communication team, was what crossed her mind about the inflatable that relies on TPMS? Actually, she replied, “I hope that we are talking about UPTIS,” but affirmed that air pressure sensors will remain in the market for the heavy trucks and the older vehicles. Next she shifted the discussion to a new car-to-car product made for EVs and AVs that continuously senses the tire conditions that has been named Tire Data Management System (TMS) for its ability to wirelessly detect road surface friction as well as load.

Lutz agreed that the repair and maintenance analytic barriers confronting the independent installers may restrict their growth potential which why it is imperative for the industry’s most influential power brokers to engage the manufacturers. Discussed openly in their shareholder report, Sensata actively collaborates with their factory partners’ innovations much like their peer suppliers—such as Bosch, Denso, Tenneco-Federal Mogul and so forth. Lutz favors raising the conversation amongst these players about how the future of UPTIS will bear upon the entire industry. However, first learning about the “unknowns” known by GM and Michelin warrants more serious fact gathering.

Given the pace of digitalization, driving safety is integral to whomever touches these new vehicle parts. “The closer suppliers are to this technology, the quicker we can help the aftermarket adapt to these changes and keep up with the new technology coming to market,” said Lutz.  Whomever can sway GM and Michelin should leverage diplomacy by advancing their independent repair shop constituency that is widely dispersed with modest financial resources to press their own case. The mom and pop owners must uphold up their side of the bargain that they are eager to adapt. Otherwise deconstruction will become theirs to own.

It is more than UPTIS for everyone to balance the potential impacts. Luckily for all parts makers, time is on their side to comfort the installer and their suppliers that they can build a safe harbor before the big tech tidal wave hits the shores. To adeptly negotiate with the GMs of the world demands caution about repeating the already stated narrative about the right to repair. Be innovative and add a signature spin that for any manufacturer to dictate which independent shop can stay on the repair island is a potentially toxic kind of marketplace capitalism.

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