Is climate change killing off studded tires?
With warming temperatures and unpredictable weather becoming the norm in the U.S., it looks like climate change and advances in technology are set to kill off studded tires.
In colder, snowier states like Alaska, Oregon and Washington studded tires have been common for decades, with laws denoting which months of the year they can be used (usually from around September to May).
But despite their solid performance on ice, studded tires have been fraught with challenges, costing states millions of dollars in repair work for damage they have caused to pavements and road surfaces.
What’s more, unseasonal warm spells in winter have meant drivers have had to use their studded tires on slush and pavement, instead of on ice, thereby wearing down the studs and compromising the integrity of the tires themselves.
Warmer winters mean less market for studs
Let’s look at Alaska as an example. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average temperature across Alaska has increased about 3°F in the last 60 years and is projected to increase an additional 2 to 4°F by the middle of this century. Warming in the winter has increased by an average of 6°F and has led to changes in ecosystems, such as earlier breakup of river ice in the spring.
Doug Hardy, chief executive of North Tread Company based in Anchorage, Alaska, told Traction News he has seen a big drop in demand for studded tires and attributes it to a combination of advances in winter tire technology and climate change.
“Growing up in Alaska we used to get a ton of snow. Now we don’t get a whole lot of snow and it switches between slush during the day and then it will freeze that night and we’ll get ice in the morning,” he said.
“Around Thanksgiving it was 60°F to 65°F; this is unheard of… we have been hearing complaints from our studded-tire-buying customers worried that their studded tires will be overworn with our lack of snow and ice.”
“There’s a big snowfall, then the weather warms up and they’re driving around on asphalt for a few weeks, and definitely those aluminium studs are going to wear.”
The rise of studless winter tires
Hardy said the “overall mentality” he saw was customers shifting from the traditional studded tire to a studless snow tire — something that’s reflected in stats coming out of Oregon, where the number of vehicles using studded tires has dropped by 75 percent.
The change in weather patterns has led North Tread to design its own Alaskan tire — the AK907 Frontier All Season Tire — which they are working on with engineers overseas and hope will be available to customers by fall 2016.
“In Alaska we have a unique climate, and what we are doing right now is designing an Alaskan-specific tire, not one that is just made for the traditional winter,” Hardy said. “We’ve learned a lot coming through; we’ve been open since 2012 and we pride ourselves in doing things a little bit differently to other tire companies.”
Although still under development, the Alaskan tires are composed of a soft rubber compound for great traction in cold conditions and have a tread that is highly siped, which allows it to hug the surface of the roads and increases handling and traction. The tread pattern is also asymmetrically designed for water and snow displacement and traction control.
“For the most part the mega brands offer tires that pretty much probably cover everything, but we’re not at that level where we are making tires for the entire world. Right now we’re making tires for Anchorage, Alaska. So once we make a tire for Alaska that Alaskans love, we’ll look to branch out to similar climate zones,” he said.
“We just give them that tailored fit. We’re looking to offer a great product at a great price point, as well as performance — performance and safety is our number one goal.”
What are the alternatives to studded tires?
In the meantime, what are the alternatives to studded tires? Some big tire manufacturers already offer “studdable” tires (where the studs can be put on and removed later). Nokian has even dabbled in designing tires with James Bond-style retractable studs that are operated from inside the vehicle, although there’s no word on if this will become a commercial reality.
While studded tires tend to perform best when braking on ice, advances in rubber compounding and tread design mean that new-generation studless winter tires offer good performance in winter conditions. Bridgestone, Michelin, Yokohama, Continental and Goodyear all offer studless winter tires.