Hankook's main R&D Center in Daejon, South Korea, is an unassuming building nestled amid a community of office parks and industrial centers about three hours south of Seoul. But don't be fooled by the plain appearance -- the mass of intricate equipment inside is just a hint of the amount of work that goes into developing each and every tire that so many drivers take for granted.
Long before a particular model is cleared for sale, Hankook fits samples to a Flat Trac machine, which spins at up to 155 mph, changing angles and surface materials to measure performance and tread wear. Tests are done using aluminum wheels coated in ice to see how rubber compounds hold up during winter, and in special isolation chambers that calculate a lifetime wear prediction in just two or three days. Prototype tires are fit to cars in a soundproof anechoic chamber equipped with radio microphones to measure how much road noise penetrates the cabin, and a bevy of virtual modeling simulates handling, hydroplaning, and NVH performance of Hankook tires on thousands of vehicles sold today. There's even an environmental analysis division trying to improve the smell of rubber, to make the area around company factories a more pleasant place to be.
Beyond product testing, naturally the lion's share of tire development lies in the chemistry lab, and these days Hankook is grappling with one issue in particular -- fuel economy. Automakers around the globe may be touting advancements in engine efficiency, but a car's tires can have a noticeable impact on saving gas, too. With this in mind, and as fuel prices become increasingly unpredictable, Hankook is introducing a new line of low rolling-resistance tires called Enfren, designed to help save fuel and lower CO2 emissions through reduced resistance and weight. Like many low rolling-resistance tires, however, the challenge that engineers at Daejon face is how to maintain acceptable performance. Low rolling-resistance tires typically aren't as good at high speeds and wet braking, and while the new Enfren line offers a 2% improvement in fuel economy, Hankook is currently experimenting with new compounds in order to make them even more efficient.
Presently Enfren tires are available only in Korea, but the company plans to add them to its American lineup of Optimo touring, Dynapro light truck, and Ventus ultra high-performance offerings soon. That said, R&D investment and eco-friendliness alone won't put Hankook on top -- its executives know that if they're going to make headway in the cutthroat American market, the company also has to compete on price. Yet despite only becoming fully industrialized over the last half of the 20th Century, Korea's living standards are relatively high, and Hankook factory workers make an average of $50,000 per year. How does the tiremaker offer a high-quality product at a lower-price than its French, American, and Japanese competitors, while still turning a profit? Through automation.