When it comes to increasing fuel economy, the obvious steps are decreasing engine size (and, often, performance), shaving pounds, refining aerodynamics and possibly implementing hybrid technology.

Significant gains, however, can also be found in other areas. Tire design can contribute up to 7-percent to fuel efficiency, depending upon compound, tread pattern and even construction technique.

With new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards looming, automakers are doing all they can to exploit each and every gain in fuel mileage. To benefit from new tire technology, General Motors has contributed $5 million to the National Tire Research Center (NTRC), located in Halifax County, Virginia.

The center’s primary test bed is an $11.2 million machine known as the Flat-Trac LTRe. Using electric motors, the elaborate rig can spin a tire, under load, at speeds up to 200 miles per hour. Data on variables ranging from lateral grip through rolling resistance and braking distance is measured, under both wet and dry conditions.

Ideally, research conducted by the NTRC can help evolve tire design, as well as fine-tuning the make and model of tire chosen for a specific vehicle.

In addition to helping fund the NTRC, GM worked with the center’s engineers to define required test specifications. Even the center’s executive director, Frank Della Pia, has a background at GM, where he was a vehicle dynamics manager.

Of the NTRC’s capabilities, Della Pia said, “This facility has no peer in the world. It’s going to enable a transformational leap in tire technology.” That leap, presumably, will help to create tires that offer low rolling resistance, while still delivering the kind of grip that puts a smile on the face of enthusiasts.