An analysis of future vehicles on display at the Geneva International Motor Show indicated that 17in tyres with 205 or even 225 section - once the exclusive domain of high-performance sports cars - will soon be a regular feature on many new models.
Michelin forecasts that by 2002 only 37.7% of tyres on new cars will be 14in or smaller, compared to 70% in 1997. At the same time, the proportion of 15in tyres will double to 43.4% in 2002 (1997: 21.7%), and 16in tyres will feature on 14.7% of new cars in 2002 (1997: 5.6%).
This evolution represents a major challenge to fleet maintenance controllers, because tyre expenditure accounts for about 25% of a company car's service and maintenance budget.
As a result, some of Europe's largest fleets and leasing companies are establishing pan-European tyre sourcing arrangements in a bid to leverage their buying power and halt rising tyre costs.
This will not lead to a single price in every market for the same tyre, however, because of the different transport and distribution costs for each country, and the currency fluctuations between the Eurozone and the country where particular tyres are manufactured.
But as with all international supply agreements, the challenge lies less in negotiating a contract than in implementing it.
While some drivers will always profess a loyalty to a particular brand, the majority appear to want either a like-for-like replacement or simply a recognised brand. The real difficulty lies in ensuring adequate distribution of the right tyres through the right garage outlets.
Each European country has its own tyre buying customs, with certain markets dominated by nationwide fast-fit chains such as Euromaster, Speedy or Kwik-Fit, while others feature a high preponderance of independent garages or franchised car dealers.
'No leasing company will change the buying habits of a country, so we have to work with the reality of how people buy tyres,' said Peter Philpott, European car fleets manager of Michelin. He recognised that if company car drivers find compliance with an official fleet policy to be inconvenient they will not accept it, effectively signalling the failure of the contract.
Against this background, Michelin is working with some of Europe's largest fleets to promote the concept of a pan-European tyre arrangement.
'When you overlay a map of where leasing companies have operations, with a map of where Michelin has outlets, there is nowhere they operate where we do not,' said Philpott.
'There are 141,000 tyre outlets in Europe and Michelin is by far the major direct supplier to them, so we can offer corporate coverage. We are the number one supplier with all the original equipment manufacturers, and our policy on our fleet programme mirrors that with the Pilot, Sport, Premacy and Energy tyres.'
He believes pan-European fleets can reasonably expect a 50% penetration of Michelin product following an international agreement, although that figure will mask discrepancies between countries.
In France, Spain and the UK, for example, Michelin's coverage is almost absolute, so its penetration could exceed 90% in well disciplined fleets, while in other countries such as Portugal or Germany, where Michelin's distribution is not so widespread, its penetration would be more modest.
The tyre giant itself owns the Euromaster network, but Philpott insisted that Michelin was happy working with any distributor, saying his task was to sell the company's tyres regardless of the outlet.
Michelin fleet co-ordinators in every country work to ensure the company's tyres are stocked as widely as possible, while simultaneously developing the softer, added-value aspects of a national supply arrangement.
Added-value services may not open too many doors to price-focused fleet decision-makers, but they can help to ensure the successful implementation an international contract.
'We work with customers to improve the penetration of Michelin tyres across their fleet, perhaps by mailing drivers to explain the benefits of a deal, influencing garages to stock our tyres, or even carrying out spot checks on replaced tyres to ensure they needed replacing,' said Philpott.
Michelin implants at fleet management companies also help to maximise a customer's tyre replacements, while some fleet management companies impose penalty clauses on their tyre distributors to reinforce a preferred supply arrangement.
Such initiatives come under discussion at Michelin's fleet panel meetings, where it assembles its major European customers such as Lease Plan, GE Capital Fleet Services, PHH Vehicle Management, Hertz Lease, ALD Leasing, Dial and HSBC Vehicle Finance.
These companies are increasingly looking at tyre expenditure on a cost per kilometre basis, identifying tyre brands that offer the most competitive wholelife cost rather than the cheapest price.
Yet even the most sophisticated programmes can be undermined by driver behaviour, because the driver of a vehicle has more influence over the life of a tyre than any other factor.
'We are working with our fleet panel to make the end-user more tyre focused,' said Philpott.
'Tyres under-inflated by just 6psi can damage a car's steering, fuel economy, safety and tyre life.' (May 2000)