There’s a popular phrase that seems pretty fitting right now: Necessity is the mother of invention.
Our search for progress is seemingly endless. In the automotive world, that million-mile march toward a better reality took us from horses to steam carriages to the Model T and today. The bleeding edge of automotive technology rests in the capable and brilliant hands of companies like Tesla, Rivian and even SSC North America, which built a hypercar reportedly capable of driving 300+ mph.
This technology is genuinely astounding, but here’s the kicker: The billions of dollars and millions of man hours poured into developing the latest and greatest technology means absolutely zero when a Tesla Model X hits a patch of black ice at 65 mph on a drizzly December morning and you have your 3-year-old daughter in the back seat.
This scenario is just one of many that demonstrates the most critical reason for winter tire development and sales. Sometimes, winter tires save lives.
What used to be called “snow tires,” winter tires should be swapped in for all-seasons when temperatures dip below 40 °F (4 °C). For many dealers, all-season tires remain their bread and butter. But, as much as customers love the all-season rubber on their vehicle year-round, they inherently represent a compromise. Selling winter tires offers the dealer the opportunity to make another sale to an existing customer, which is good for the dealer, and, since winter tires are specifically designed to run in cold weather and snow, that’s also good for consumers in cold-weather states.
A Compounding Wonder
For Finnish tiremaker Nokian Tyres, building a winter tire has been fundamental to its business model for nearly a century. Dubbed the Hakkapeliitta, Nokian’s winter tire line is as fun to say out loud as it is to sell to your customers. In designing tires to conquer winter weather, balance is at the forefront of tire design for the company.
“Many manufacturers make good winter tires that perform well in snow or ice. While we believe our products are best-in-class in severe winter weather, they’re also built to keep drivers safe on slushy, wet and dry roads,” says Wes Boling, Nokian’s marketing communications manager. “It’s challenging for manufacturers to find that balance because it requires a significant investment in testing and engineering… When it comes to winter driving, wet and dry roads matter, too.”
While balancing performance on snowy, icy, slushy, wet and dry roads is one challenge, Boling said another is finding the right balance between front axle traction and rear axle traction. “A small tweak in tread pattern or compound can lead to understeer or oversteer. It’s vital to find that fine line that leads to balanced performance.”
The Hakkapeliitta isn’t the only winter tire in town. Another name that has long been synonymous with the winter tire category is Blizzak, and Bridgestone says it understands precisely what is really on offer with winter tires. Pliability and traction at low temperatures are absolutely mission critical.
“Our winter tires benefit from a lot of innovation,” said Robert Saul, Bridgestone North America’s director of consumer product strategy. “Pattern and compound technologies continue to evolve allowing us to deliver confident winter weather performance while continuing to minimize tradeoffs when compared to conventional tires.”
Acing the Test
Many tire manufacturers go to some seriously great lengths to ensure that their latest product developments hold up under the pressure of adverse driving conditions.
Nokian has the luxury of testing in some of the harshest Nordic winter environments at its “White Hell” testing facility in Ivalo, Finland. Cooper Tire similarly goes to great lengths to test product and compounding technology.
“Our winter tire team chases snow all over the globe from the U.S. and Canada to Finland, Sweden and even New Zealand,” says Jenny Paige, product manager for Cooper Tire & Rubber Company.
Tiremakers agree that tread rubber is particularly unique for winter products since it becomes brittle and slippery as it gets cold outside. The challenge for manufacturers is “to mix a rubber compound that stays supple when the temperature drops, yet will still be durable enough to last season after season,” says Paige.
For Cooper, Paige says understanding how the customer uses their vehicle in winter weather is high priority when developing the next generation of winter tire technology.
“Much of a winter tire’s performance is in the chemistry of the tread rubber itself. That tread rubber can be tuned for different needs, so it’s pivotal that we understand who our customer is and how they drive, and what attributes they value,” she says. “But even with all these great products, we depend on you, the dealer, to install the right tire to satisfy each consumer.”
Signing off on the Sale
When it comes to the rationale for selling winter tires in addition to all-season tires, “The reason is simple. Peace of mind that the tire will deliver traction to stop, go, and turn reliably in those regions that encounter winter weather,” Bridgestone’s Saul says.
I saw firsthand how winter tires offer peace of mind. Earlier this year, I had a chance to stop by Goodyear’s winter tire booth at its annual customer conference to check out its latest and greatest winter tire technology. I walked up to a funny-looking mini-refrigerator and inside were two strips of rubber that looked identical. One strip of rubber was a traditional, all-season rubber compound that had been sitting in below-freezing temperatures. From this, it was obvious that all-season tire compounds are simply not ideal for these elements. However, next to it, Goodyear’s soybean oil-based winter tire compound remained surprisingly pliable even at frigid temperatures.
When you’re taking a highway off ramp at 40 or 50 mph, the pliability and grip of the tires underneath you can be the difference between making it home safely to your family in time for dinner or waking up in the emergency room. As you read these words right now, you may be in Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon, or perhaps somewhere in between. You may have already experienced some serious snowfall. And in the next few minutes or few days, you’re going to talk with one of your customers about replacing their all-season tires with something to get them safely through the winter months.
And it’s at precisely this point, I hope you’ll remember something you learned here and recommend a brand-new set of winter tires to your customer. Where all-season tires compromise, winter tires excel.