The Engineering of Traction
It’s winter again, and with winter in Colorado comes snow. Amazing, beautiful, slippery snow. It’s great for skiing, of course, but skiing is not what you want to do on the highway! You need traction.
Have you ever thought about the engineering that goes into the tires we put on our vehicles? I just switched tires — from one kind of performance tire to an entirely different kind of performance tire. The first, the “summer” tires (shown on the right) have pretty amazing traction on dry pavement, especially when said pavement is hot. Hard to break these things loose, and driving with them is a ton of fun. Snow, on the other hand, renders these things almost traction-less.
The “winter” tires (shown on the left) are amazing in an entirely different way. The same car that can’t go up a snow covered hill with the summer tires, challenges even my 4×4 truck when the winter tires are installed.
The old school methods were chains or studs (still used frequently, and honestly still the best winter traction). But, they damage the roads, and (chains) are a pain to work with. To me, the amazing story is here, in the engineering of these “studless” snow tires.
Of course, it’s the hundreds of sipes (narrow slices) in the tread that everyone points to as the winter traction specialty. But is it really just that? After studying a bit, I see a bunch more that goes into the design and engineering of winter tire treads. If it was just so easy as sipes, then everyone would do it, and there wouldn’t be that much of a difference between the tire brands. But there is a difference, and it comes in part from the tread shape, and in part from the things you don’t see.
(You can say similar things about features of the summer tires that give the awesome street traction.)
If You’re In The Market
Check out a few of the leading brands and do a little of your own investigation. These Nokian’s are considered one of the best winter tires because of their proven traction on snow and ice — call it winter performance. The complete story, and the real reasons are not so obvious.
From my research, a couple of winter tires that seem to be at the top are: Nokian Hakkapeliitta R2 (left), and the Bridgestone Blizzak WS80 (right) which look entirely different, but also perform well.
So, how about these winter tires in the summer? Oh, they’re awful. They have good traction (not great at the extremes), but they tend to be spongy and lack performance feedback. (Probably due to the sipes.) They are also noisy. Chalk one up for the focused engineering of the industry to optimize their products for specific purposes. Yeah, it’s a hassle to change them each Spring and Fall, but absolutely worth it for the performance gains.
Written just for the fun of it. We are not tire experts or even tire engineers, but we find fascination in all sorts of engineering. In this case, tires live a tough life, and we demand (and expect) so much from them. I have such respect for the engineers that design these amazing hunks of rubber.