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Default How do Winter Tires Work?

With the Midwest and eastern states smothered in snow and accosted by abnormally frigid temperatures, this winter has been uncommonly excruciating for people in the Northern U.S. Given the brutal weather, tires are a surprisingly appropriate subject for discussion.

If polar bears and penguins lived in Detroit, they’d probably hitch a ride to the North Pole in order to warm up; Motown’s been that chilly. And if they opted to make the journey by car they’d almost certainly need snow tires to maximize traction and safety. But what separates these “shoes” from summer rubber or all-season tires? Quite a bit, actually.

And right off the bat, “snow tires” should really be referred to as “winter tires,” since they’re designed to handle far more than just powdery-white precipitation. Anant Gandhi, product manager at Bridgestone Americas called it “a more appropriate term” and said “they’re cold-weather tires as well.”


Directly comparing winter and summer tires reveals some obvious variation between the two, though there are major disparities that are not apparent to the eye. “The physical appearance is different” Gandhi said, adding that with winter rubber “there’s quite a bit more siping.”

Sipes are small grooves that are cut or molded into the tread of a tire. Winter tires typically have a lot more of these than summer tires because they help “create more biting edges,” which promotes traction Gandhi said. In layman’s terms, winter tires generally look knobbier and more aggressive.


But the key to cold-weather grip goes far beyond big chunks of tread; tires are highly engineered pieces of technology backed up by cutting-edge chemistry.

“The main difference is the compound; the materials a tire’s tread is made out of,” Gandhi said. “The chemistry behind the rubber compounds is just amazing.” Bridgestone uses all kinds of different polymers in its winter tires.

He said summer tires become stiff and hard in cold temperatures, which is an attribute that reduces their ability to grip the road when the thermometer drops. On the other hand, he said winter tires are typically made of materials that remain more pliable at frigid temperatures.

That malleability is critical. The tread of a tire needs to conform to the road’s surface in order to provide maximum grip.

Beyond aggressive tread patterns and squishy rubber, even more advanced engineering goes into winter tires. For instance Gandhi said “Silica is used to improve wet grip.”

All of this cutting-edge science has one goal in mind: safety. “You’re going to be able to accelerate much quicker [with winter tires], and more importantly, you’re going to be able to stop,” Gandhi said. Additionally, drivers will have better handling and more confidence as they navigate snow or ice-covered roads.
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