By Patrick Raleigh, ERJ On-line news editor
After three years of trying in Europe, Groupe Michelin has apparently yet to establish its PAX System very high up the automotive industry's agenda. But, Pedro Costa, the firm's vice president for extended mobility, insists that PAX remains on track to become the runflat technology of the future-as highlighted by a new fitment in North America where the system has eliminated the spare tyre from a top-end version of the Honda Odyssey minivan.
Q. Renault was the first company to use PAX on a volume car, fitting it as standard on top-end versions of the Scenic I in 2002. However the carmaker then opted not to fit the system on the new Scenic II. What is the situation with Renault and PAX?
A. PAX takes the maximum of its value when the vehicle is fully designed with PAX System, which was not yet the case for Scenic, which so far includes room for a spare wheel.
When you decide to introduce systems like PAX on a new vehicle it is a decision that is taken very early in the programme as it is linked to the design of new platforms. These are decisions taken 4-5 years before the start of vehicle production.
In this case, the feedback from the Scenic I application of PAX System was not there to have the vehicle fully equipped with the PAX system. By the time we got this very positive reaction from the customers, some of the decisions for the architecture of the Scenic II were already made.
That is why for this vehicle PAX is either an option or a limited series fitment. It is not yet the case as it is on the Honda Odyssey where it is fully integrated as part of the standard fitment of the vehicle.
Q. Are you still working with Renault?
A. We continue to work on several projects and several domains with Renault and other customers. In any case, we will leave it to Renault to communicate when they implement the decisions, because of course it is really part of the marketing of the customer.
Q. What about Honda's decision to fit PAX on the Odyssey minivan in North America?
A. This is great news as PAX is indeed now hitting North America directly with standard fitment on a major reference car in this segment. It is the reference minivan at the high-end version.
Q. What volumes do you expect for the PAX-fitted Honda minivan?
A. Expect to supply around 100 000 PAX systems, so it is about 20-30 000 vehicles a year. The car is designed specifically to integrate the PAX system.
Q. How significant is this fitment?
A. It is a big step forward for PAX. 2001 was the start of PAX in Europe and now we are starting in North America. This means that there is a continuous progress with the PAX System.
The third step will be Asia and that's what we are preparing for. That's the meaning of the licensing agreements we have with Sumitomo, as well as Toyo this year.
We now have ended phase I to demonstrate that PAX can cover different segments of vehicle as we did with minivans at Renault and Audi with high-end vehicles. In total we have sold more that 200 000 PAX systems and that is really good for phase I.
Now we are starting with Honda in North America, and we enter in a new phase with standard fitments, which ultimately increases the volumes.
Q. You have also announced that Nissan will employ PAX on a 2005 vehicle model in North America. Any update on this?
A. With regard to Nissan, we continue to work with them for a start next year. There are some delays, which are part of the life of the OE programme.
Q. It seems that minivans are main focus for PAX at the moment.
A. Minivans are taking the lead but we also concentrate on other applications such as SUVs and luxury vehicles. The point is that with phase I of PAX System we have demonstrated that this concept applies to all segments. But indeed minivans, luxury and SUVs are the areas where the pull of the market is the biggest at the moment.
Q. Which car makers are you working with in North America?
A. For North America we work with Japanese carmakers and are focused really on some key partners.
Q. What's happening in the European market?
A. In Europe, we are in a continuous process of introducing PAX on new platforms and deepening our relationship with carmakers. We started with Renault and then Audi and we continue discussions and to work with other customers.
Q. It seems that much of the technical development work is focused on weight savings. Any comment?
A. We have reduced the weight if the support ring by 60 percent in the last few years and continue to work on this area. We have reduced also the weight of the wheel and continue to because we have an intensive research effort to further enhance the system.
Q How different is PAX fitted on the Renault Scenic in 2001 to that being fitted on the Honda Odyssey?
A. There are very big differences. One is that we introduced a support ring that is now being made of polyurethane-from the project with Dow-and this results in a big reduction in mass of the system.
Of course a PAX System compared to a standard assembly will be heavier, but our perspective is that we can reduce the difference between a standard assembly and PAX to 10-15 percent.
We have collaborations with wheel manufacturers in Europe and in North America and we work with Japanese companies too. We are very positive about the progress. The Honda Odyssey will be the first programme that introduces this new progress.
We are really confident that our progress in terms of mass, in terms of performance like rolling resistance etc will really confirm the potential we have announced for PAX System.
Q. What is Michelin's position in the area of self-supporting sidewall tyres?
A. We are working on this technology, which we introduced in 1995. We have some fitments like on the Cadillac XLR and for example with BMW for the Series 1. It is really part of our technical offering.
We will be part of the BMW 1 Series. We work with BMW to commercialise [our tyres] and we continue to do so. That is part of our normal business.
Q. Is there any clash in being both a supplier of PAX System and SST tyres?
A. Carmakers want to eliminate the spare wheel and the very important thing is that in 2004 this is happening with continued mobility solutions. As carmakers want to save space, eliminate cost, they and the tyre makers have worked to find solutions.
SST tyres are a way to eliminate the spare wheel, which is one of the expectations of carmakers and drivers because they also want vehicles that are more secure, preserve the environment, are more comfortable and are easier to drive.
To cover all the needs of the marketplace we needed to go further than SST tyres and that is where PAX System comes as an innovation that, for us, answers all the needs of the market place.
There is a big difference between SST tyres, which are an evolution of current technology, and PAX System that is a true innovation beyond runflat capability.
We are really comfortable to have the two technologies and we work to meet customer's needs. So BMW has made the analysis that up to now SST fits their needs and the needs of its customers and we work with that.
The key point is working closely with our customers to understand their needs and develop for them the best solutions. The fact that PAX is a true innovation means it is going to takes time it requires a deep cooperation with carmakers.
We have also SST tyres, which is an entry level in terms of runflat solutions. So having both solutions is really the best way to transform the market place.
Q. How does the fuel economy of an SST tyre compare with that of PAX?
A. It depends on the vehicle and the tyres, but there is typically an up to 10 percent increase in rolling resistance with SST tyres compared to a standard tyre [due to greater guage of the tyre walls]. By contrast PAX can reduce rolling resistance compared to a standard tyre in the same range of 10 percent.
We believe, for example, in Europe that changes to the emission of CO2 norms and regulations are an opportunity to introduce innovation. We are working with our customers to see what is the best solution, and PAX is definitely one of the innovations that can contribute to this effort.
Q. What are the key selling points for PAX in North America?
A. There are many points. One is safety and mobility, ie the fact that you don't have to stop in the middle of nowhere when you have a flat tyre. And, as the spare wheels are very heavy in an SUV or a minivan, getting rid of the spare seems something that is very natural.
As part of PAX there is the tyre pressure monitoring system. This is something that we really believe in because it is a part of the offer that will increase safety because under inflation is something we really need to avoid.
We also have very robust service plan with Honda to ensure customer satisfaction and this is a key point of the PAX System.
Q. What will happen to PAX over the next five years?
A. The key point is that there is a continued and progressive growth and demand for PAX System. It was in Europe, now it is going on in North America. We really anticipate and have several projects that will continue to take more and more fitments in the marketplace.