Looking for tire deals, specials, rebates and promotions?
In 1920, John F. Sipe worked on a slaughterhouse floor in New York City’s meatpacking district. He spent his days shoveling guts into machinery wearing work boots with thick rubber soles. These boots slipped a lot on the slick factory floor, and after falling one too many times, John started to experiment with modifying them.
He found that carving perpendicular notches into the tread of his work boots improved his traction drastically — plummeting his rate of workplace falls.
And thus, the “sipe” was born.
At least, as legend would have it.
U.S. Patent Office image.
Despite the potential application in anti-slip work boots, Sipe chose to stake his inventor’s claim in the automotive industry. Focusing his designs on solid rubber tires, John was awarded U.S. Patent #1452099 in 1923.
They didn’t make him a rich man, (the industry moved away from solid rubber tires, nullifying John’s claims), but John Sipe’s patents are very real. And so is the science behind them. His workplace-inspired idea is used in tire design to this day.
As a tire rolls, the sipes open, funneling water and/or snow away from the center of the tire, often referred to as the “contact patch” of the tire. This is where the tire is in the most direct contact with the road. The drier the contact patch area, the more traction the tire can achieve. As well as water evacuation, sipes allow certain tire features to flex around obstacles, further enhancing grip.
Sipes are an important feature in many tire designs, but they’re just one of the traction-maximizing tools that modern engineers have at their disposal to produce and sustain grip. To learn about the full gambit, we sat down with Brandon Sturgis, a product design lead at BFGoodrichⓇ Tires.
When we think about tires, the concept of “grip” is our brain’s linguistic way of summarizing and simplifying the complicated group of forces that occur when a tire interacts with terrain. You can start to break down some of that summarization by thinking about grip at three distinct scales:
“For a great example of macro-mechanical grip, look at the BFGoodrichⓇ Mud-Terrain T/A® KM3 Tire as it crawls over a rock. We designed that tire’s tread pattern to fold onto itself and envelope objects when aired down. The tire, like a hand grabbing onto a ledge, cups the obstacle, offering the tire superior grip as it travels over it.” – Brandon Sturgis
At BFGoodrich, different roles on each engineering team will focus on different scales of the tire’s grip. Chemists focus on molecular grip, material scientists focus on micro-mechanical grip, and tread designers focus on macro-mechanical grip, for just a few examples. From inspiration, through the design process, and then through all the testing and sizing work, hundreds of experts will have a hand in a tire’s design before it hits the mass market.
Producing grip is one thing. Sustaining it — over thousands of miles of exploration down rainy highways, rocky detours, gravel side roads, snowy mountain passes, and anywhere else the driver wants to go — that’s another task entirely. Everything about a moment on the road, from the humidity in the air to the micro-textures on the surface of each rock, is a variable for an off-road tire to plan for. When you discover a design solution that checks many of those environmental boxes while maintaining durability, you hold on tight.
“If you look at the tread patterns, you’ll notice that BFGoodrich tires all look a little familiar. That’s not just for looks. That interlocking tread pattern is simply so successful, we’ve added it to all our products. Its magic is that it doesn’t just provide forward traction. It offers lateral traction at all sorts of steering angles, in many types of terrain. Performing well in all of those areas is not easy. So, this pattern is ‘the one.’ At least, until we experiment our way into something even better.” – Brandon Sturgis
Like chemical compounds in a recipe for rubber, these features bind and work together to create maximum grip at every scale, in every driving situation:
“If you look at our tires versus our competitors, you may notice that we have the ability to wrap the tread pattern further around the side of the tire, thanks to our proprietary tire mold technology. This technique takes advantage of that extra real estate on the tire to give you more traction.” – Brandon Sturgis
Grip is a relentless pursuit. It involves expertise in wide-ranging disciplines like computer simulation, chemistry, meteorology, geology, material science, structural engineering, and much more. Importantly, it also requires expertise in driving and in life. This work demands a little dirt beneath the fingernails, a little sand in the hair, and a genuine passion for the great, mud-splattered world that we tune for.
It may be perfected in the lab, but grip is always born out in the real world. On the slimy floors of slaughterhouses, on the snowy highways of the American Midwest, and on the unforgiving racecourses of events like the Baja 1000 or the Mint 400. Infinitely demanding and far from predictable, the real world continues to be the ultimate muse for the engineers at BFGoodrich Tires.
“You can't just sit behind a desk and think up the next big thing for tires. You need to get out there and get your hands dirty. At BFGoodrich, the same people who design the tires are out at motorsports events supporting racers, trying out different tread patterns in the field, and seeing what works under the toughest conditions. Everyone is encouraged to get out there, because that's how you learn. ” – Brandon Sturgis
Life, inspiring science, enabling life.
Rinse, tune, repeat.
Photo credit: MadMedia
Vehicle sales skyrocketed during "The Horsepower Wars". Now, the American automotive market’s embrace of electric-powered vehicles is charging things up again.
Bandon Sturgis shares a glimpse into the scientific process of how we create every tire, including our newest: the BFGoodrich® Trail-Terrain T/A® tire.
Kelly Moss Road and Race shares the biology of a KMR Porsche build, the role tires play, and how and why this vehicle is the ultimate all-terrain driver.