Sweet wheels: A new spin on tires

Linda Melone
The green movement is entering the tire industry in a sweet way. Within the next three to five years, your car may be rolling along on tires made from sugar, rather than traditional petroleum-based products.
Tire companies such as Goodyear and Michelin have teamed up with biotechnology companies to produce the sugar-based tires. One of the goals is to prevent shortages of natural (rubber tree) and synthetic materials used to make tires.
The new technology is known as BioIsoprene. The process can use sugars derived from sugar cane, corn, or corn cobs to produce the material used in the technology.
Wendy Rosen, a spokeswoman for DuPont Industrial Biosciences, says synthetic tires made with BioIsoprene will be similar in performance, safety and cost to tires made with petroleum-based isoprene (a water-insoluble liquid used to produce tires). DuPont is developing BioIsoprene with Genencor and Goodyear.
Where the rubber meets the road
The BioIsoprene technology is so new that few tire dealers have had experience with it. Spokesman Mark Cook says the Tire Industry Association "has been active on environmental issues such as recycling, so we support the (BioIsoprene) efforts, but as an association we don't have an official opinion on their cost-effectiveness and pros and cons yet."
The BioIsoprene product isn't the only environmentally friendly tire hitting the streets. Japanese manufacturers have introduced a tire made from only non-petroleum, plant-based materials. The air-free tire uses a special mesh-like resin on the sides of the tire to support a vehicle's weight.
For now, the cost of this new generation of tires is up in the air.
"Consumers will pay more if they don't have to buy them as often. But any improvements made must be measured against other, less-expensive products," says Dan Zielinski, a spokesman for the Rubber Manufacturers Association. 
Tire safety standards
 Zielinski says that to be sold in the United States, the BioIsoprene and air-free tires must meet federal safety standards. "This includes a low-inflation pressure test, a high-speed test and an endurance test. It's the toughest testing regimen in the world for tires," he says.
Tires are a critical component for vehicle safety, Zielinski says. "They're the only part of the car that touches the road. Tires play a role in braking, accelerating, turning, changing lanes and cornering," he says.
If the new tires are found to be inferior and a contributor to car crashes, that could affect auto insurance rates, Worters says. "This would have to be determined over time, however," she says. "We'd need to show increased car accidents from blowouts from this type of tire."
Tire trade-offs
Zielinski says motorists want safe, long-lasting tires on their cars. However, he says, some tires are designed for fuel efficiency, while others are made for speed or long tread life.
"You can't have a tire that can be 100 percent of all these traits," Zielinksi says. "Manufacturers are always striving to find new blends of materials that deliver the performance people want and that creates a tough tire that lasts."
Price of green
Regardless of what type of tires you buy, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers these tire safety tips:
  • Check tire pressure at least once a month, including the spare.
  • Check the owner's manual (not the side of the tire) for the recommended tire pressure.
  • Do not overload your vehicle. Check the owner's manual for maximum recommended loads.
  • Rotate tires every 5,000 miles or according to your vehicle owner's manual.
  • Check the tread: Place a penny and position Lincoln's head into one of the tire tread grooves. Part of his head should be covered by the thread. If you can see all of Lincoln's head, replace the tire.

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