independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Tyres: the non-stop drive to make our world go round more safely

We kick them, abuse them and haggle over their price. But as Eddie Cunningham reports, there's a whole world of science devoted to making tyres that could save your life. Here he reports on his driving experience with a new breed that has taken two years to develop

Dunlop claims that its new Sports BluResponse tyres not only have a shorter stopping distance but will also lower your fuel consumption

There is a veil to be lifted on this relationship between price, value, grip, safety and fuel consumption

TO paraphrase that over-rated soccer manager Alex Ferguson after his side had won the 1999 Champions League in injury time: "Tyres eh? Bloody hell." I think that sums up most people's attitude to those black round things that we ignore until they give trouble. They represent something of a mystery.

But behind the dark façade, the apparently cloned appearance of one tyre and another, lies a world of extraordinary science, trial, endurance and minute measurements on a par with pharmaceutical studies.

With new EU labelling recently introduced, tyres are getting a bit more attention but I've always said we drivers do neglect them awfully. Research has shown that potential customers first look for the brand, then wet-grip for safety and then fuel efficiency.

Maybe I'm being cynical but I always thought people were concerned primarily with price to the virtual exclusion of everything else. Therein lies the danger: mixing up price and value.

If only they could see the science and effort behind the production of a tyre they might consider critical factors such as safety, stopping distances and rolling resistance more.

Even allowing for economic pressures that force people into shortcuts, there is a veil to be lifted on this relationship between price, value, grip, safety and fuel consumption.

It is a tough task but I tried to tackle it as best I could on a tiny, personal scale by driving a 'small' Mercedes on a test pad with wet and dry surfaces to see how a new breed of tyre from Dunlop performed.

It is a cliche I've used so often but it's still true: your tyres can be the difference between life and death. Dunlop reckons that its new Sport BluResponse breed can stop you much shorter than its predecessor. That could be such a vital safety margin in real life on a bad, wet road late at night.

Imagine the implications if it meant avoiding/not avoiding a pedestrian, another car, another object.

The tyre giant gave us access to cars and testing grounds, slalom driving (I finished fourth) and all sorts of technical data as we drove on the Sport BluResponse for passenger cars.

As this tyre could be on your car in the near future, you might be interested to hear Dunlop's claim that a set of them will save you €100 a year in lower fuel costs. Given that they are expected to cost between €80 and €150 each (with a projected average of €90), then the savings look decent.

It is a big claim but Dunlop backed it up for us by detailing how major elements such as lower rolling resistance (improved by 40pc) and a 20pc reduction in weight all add up to less energy being used.

Another way to keep costs down is to make sure the tyre wears evenly. That means it should last longer and cost you less per kilometre.

Then there are the factors that, of themselves, don't register on the bottom line. They include reduced tyre/road noise, more comfort, a sportier feel through the steering wheel, greater flexibility and more performance etc.

But I always kept coming back to the most important bit: the ability to grip in the wet – and dry – so that my stopping distance was reduced.

I hammered around the test area and got bolder each circuit because despite my severe braking and sharp turns of steering, I never lost control of the car or felt grip slipping away from me.

The response to my harsh braking and uneven steering made me feel confident and in control. That's the crucial bit.

I drove as fast as I could and those four tyres did their job under what would be extreme – and one hopes never repeated – circumstances in normal driving conditions. They probably did exceptionally well but I would have needed a week and a drive on all the competitor tyres to properly allocate pecking order. Unsurprisingly, Dunlop claims that the Sport BluResponse has a three-metre shorter braking distance than "the average results of competitors in test".

What is certain, however, is that the figures show this new breed to be a major improvement on its predecessor.

And that means the margin between life, death and injury may just have widened a little bit more. What price can you put on that?

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