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Leaders / Tire technology evolves amid car innovation / Air-free tires, narrow tread for EVs developed

Naoko Yamagishi/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Masaaki Tsuya speaks to The Yomiuri Shimbun.

By Tatsuya Sasaki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterBridgestone Corp. boasts the largest share of the global tire market. For this installment of Leaders, a column featuring corporate management and senior executives, The Yomiuri Shimbun asked Chairman and CEO Masaaki Tsuya about dealing with ongoing technological innovation in the automobile industry.

With innovations in areas such as electric motors and self-driving technologies, it is said that the automobile industry is in the midst of a once-in-a-century revolution. While the eventual result and speed of these changes remain to be seen, automobiles have to change in as drastic a way as people’s lives have been changed by smartphones. Different kinds of tires should be manufactured under these circumstances.

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  • Naoko Yamagishi/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Although some might assume that the tire industry has not experienced changes on as great a scale as the rest of the automotive sector, this is actually not the case. While tires’ external appearance may be little changed — they still look like giant black doughnuts — their technology has evolved significantly. A good case in point is tires manufactured for electric vehicles.

[In March 2013, Bridgestone announced a new tire technology, ologic, for the next-generation fuel-efficient tire. The technology has been applied to BMW’s i3 electric vehicle.]

The ologic model tire has a larger diameter and a narrower width. We developed the narrower tires to reduce aerodynamic resistance because energy efficiency is more important for electric vehicles, which are heavier than conventional cars.

We also expect and prepare for growth in ride sharing and autonomous driving. Although cars are currently owned individually, their utilization rate is said to be around 10 percent. From an efficiency standpoint, it is natural to shift from owning cars to sharing them.

As self-driving vehicles become more common and vehicles become autonomous, tires with higher performance will be required. If these self-driving cars stop because they cannot be operated, it will cause inconvenience for more users per car and need more time to fix the problem. Therefore, a system needs to be established to immediately deal with situations including car malfunctions.

Furthermore, we should expect stricter standards for fuel efficiency. Because keeping adequate inflation pressure contributes to better fuel efficiency, proper maintenance is important. Rather than simply selling our products, we will strengthen our efforts to provide better after-sales services.

About 20 years ago, Bridgestone began rolling out a new “run-flat tire.” We adopted reinforced sidewall rubber in tires, which allows a car to be driven for a certain distance without inflation pressure.

It is not easy for some female drivers — their numbers were increasing back then — to change tires by themselves. Changing tires in the rain or on the shoulder of a highway is risky. That is why the company, as the world’s top manufacturer, decided to develop and promote the product. Although the stiffened sidewalls in early models hindered a comfortable ride, we have already overcome that shortcoming through improvements.

We have also developed “Air-Free Concept” tires made of plastic. This eliminates the need to refill the tire with air and worry about having flat tires. We will start selling it for bicycle users next year. We also have made progress in our research on applying the technology to passenger cars. The new product can be fully utilized to meet demands in the new era.

Amass road data via IoT

With the development of the internet of things (IoT) — devices that are connected to each other via the internet — data collected by tires can be the seeds of big business. The recent models of the run-flat tires give us such a smooth and comfortable ride that a driver cannot even notice when a tire is punctured. To address this, sensors are mounted on a car to monitor inflation pressure. A wide array of data such as temperature can be monitored and accumulated.

Tires are the only part of a vehicle in contact with the road surface. Automobiles today collect data through onboard cameras, but information on the road surface from cameras can be influenced by light and reflection. But our systems can acquire such data through tire vibration.

In snowy regions, sensor technology in tires has been utilized for managing roads in the winter. The technology has been adopted by a highway service company’s system, which monitors changing road conditions, such as rain and snow, via tires on patrol vehicles. This has contributed to enhancing road safety.

Sensors will also tell us the amount of a tire’s wear. If we can obtain real-time information on tire ridges’ decreasing or wheels being imbalanced, we will be able to change tires at the proper stage to avoid a puncture. Specialized vehicles deployed in mines for extracting and transporting raw materials, such as coal and iron ore, have already operated with tires that can collect and analyze such data. Knowing in advance when to change tires is extremely important for improving efficiency.

Potential applications of how to use the data will be broadened further if we share the data among many companies instead of each company monopolizing them.

Drama in acquiring Firestone

Due to my father’s job, I transferred from one school to another three times in my childhood. I was alone while entering a completely new and different environment. The things that were taken for granted differed slightly from place to place. I believe that experience nurtured my ability to adapt to changes.

After joining the company, I was first assigned to the Executive Administration Office and put in charge of negotiations and making contracts with foreign entities. However, I was not good at English. My written translations into English were returned with many corrections in red ink. My business letters in English were rewritten by others and nearly none of the original words were left. I became reluctant to show up to the office in the morning.

My superiors told me to read an English book or listen to the radio in English at least a little every day. I studied English desperately in my own way.

[In 1988, Bridgestone acquired the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., the second-largest tire manufacturer in the United States. The purchase amount was about ¥300 billion, which at that time was the most paid by a Japanese company to acquire a foreign firm.]

I joined a special acquisition team of about five members. I was the most junior employee in the group. The initial plan was not to purchase the entire U.S. firm, but to start with a joint enterprise on a limited scale. However, because an Italian manufacturer, Pirelli, began attempting a hostile takeover, Bridgestone decided to acquire the entire company as a countermeasure.

I went to the United States and rushed to have meetings with investment banks and law firms. I was so excited because I felt I had suddenly strayed into a drama in the making. I remember that I could barely sleep for a few weeks.

I believe the acquisition was the correct decision strategically. Nonetheless, it also invited confusion as we were not fully prepared to take the right of management as a whole. Dialogue did not go smoothly and we could not make decisions. At the worst period, we lost ¥100 million every day. That was a costly lesson.

Eventually we could recover our investment and the acquisition can be said to have been a success. But if we could do it again today, we would choose different approaches. With a large-scale acquisition, the target company has many employees and a long history with a different corporate culture. Successful dealmaking involves significant risk. In my view, there are some prerequisites for a successful acquisition. What are they? That’s a company secret.

Even though manufacturers in emerging countries have been actively catching up with us over the years, the level of technology needed to meet customer demand has also been getting higher. As long as we continue to respond to changes and move further ahead in technology, we will be able to keep the lead. I have no worries.

While research on flying cars is apparently progressing, in any case, those cars will still need tires. Linear motor cars, or maglev trains, also operate with tires. Wheels and tires enjoy an outstanding position due to their high efficiency for transportation. We will continue to evolve further by making full use of the characteristic of tires.

■ Key Numbers

163 plants

Bridgestone operates 163 manufacturing plants in 26 countries. Of these, tire and tire-related plants account for 77 and the other plants are for raw material processing and other products. Global tire company rankings by industry journal Tire Business showed Bridgestone’s global tire market share in 2016 was the largest at 14.6 percent, followed by Michelin’s 14 percent. According to the consolidated financial statements for the fiscal year ended December 2017, its net sales were ¥3.6434 trillion ($32.2 billion). The consolidated number of employees was 142,669 as of the end of December 2017.

■ Masaaki Tsuya / Chairman of the Board, CEO and Representative Executive Officer of Bridgestone Corp.

Born in Tokyo in 1952. Tsuya graduated from the Faculty of Economics at Hitotsubashi University in 1976 before joining the company. He earned an MBA at the University of Chicago. After serving in positions including general manager of the Office of International Relations and director of the Division of the Executive Administration Office, Tsuya became vice president and officer in 2006, vice president and senior officer in 2008 and CEO in 2012, before taking up his current position in March 2013. He is acquainted with international affairs due to having spent considerable time in foreign operations in his career.Speech

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