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Michelin is letting the air out of its tires: Why that matters for sustainable mobility

The 130-year-old French tire company will test the technology first on electric passenger vehicles in collaboration with General Motors.

One simple thing any automobile or truck driver can do to improve fuel economy is ensure that the tires on their vehicle are inflated to the proper pressure. It also turns out that letting the air out of them entirely may be one of the next big things in advancing the cause of sustainable mobility. 

Last week, iconic French tire maker Michelin disclosed the prototype for a generation of "airless" tires that it will begin testing later this year on passenger vehicles in collaboration with General Motors. Called Uptis (which stands for Unique Punctureproof Tire System), the tires are made up of composite materials and use a unique design to bear the weight of the car at high speeds.

The companies have a goal to introduce the technology commercially by as early as 2024, although the tires will take far longer to show up as an option for larger vehicles, such as Class 8 trucks. The two companies are talking up passenger safety as one of the primary potential benefits and motivators — especially in markets such as India and many Asian companies, where road conditions cause much higher rates of tire blowouts than in North America and Europe.

But the development also could help decrease the amount of rubber and raw materials used annually to produce tires by extending their useful lives and allowing for narrower formats, said Eric Vinesse, executive vice president or research and development for Group Michelin, last week during Michelin’s third annual Movin’ On Summit. An estimated 200 million tires annually must be replaced because they fall victim to punctures or damage, Michelin estimates.

"We need to move towards a more sustainable future where we can provide solutions that have less impact on the environment overall," Vinesse said during a press briefing at the event. (Note: Michelin covered travel costs for journalists from around the world to cover the event, which took place in Montreal.)

We have an ambition in the next 30 years to be 80 percent renewable in everything we do. So materials and designs that are coming out of recycling or that is biosourced.
Michelin’s long-term vision is to produce tires that are "100 percent sustainable," meaning that they are sourced entirely from renewable or biosourced materials. The company also has invested substantially in technologies meant to help it recover materials from old tires — in late 2017, it bought Lehigh Technologies, which converts end-of-life tires into micronized rubber powder used for applications such as asphalt enhancement, foam cushions or carpeting. 

Two years ago, Michelin also announced its intention to prioritize innovations in connectivity (through technologies such as sensors) and approaches will allow for the 3D printing of certain components — both essential ingredients of its sustainability plan. For example, one could envision a future in which winter treads that could be printed and added to tires on an ad hoc basis, then removed when no longer needed. That vision remains conceptual today, but it points to the sorts of R&D that the 130-year-old company will invest in. 

"In terms of expectation, the sustainability aspect is absolutely critical for the next 10 years," Vinesse said. "We have an ambition in the next 30 years to be 80 percent renewable in everything we do. So materials and designs that are coming out of recycling or that is biosourced. So, developing all those biosourced options for the materials that we use is, of course, one of the big challenges and opportunities of the year."

It’s no accident that the Uptis tires — which contain new sorts of composite materials such as resin-embedded fiberglass — will be tested first on a fleet of GM Bolt electric vehicles in Michigan. That’s because tires for those vehicles are narrower and taller in nature, reflecting the different aerodynamic qualities and weight distribution of EVs when compared to cars using gasoline- or diesel-fueled combustion engines.

But while the tires are being developed in North America — and are likely to be produced there — the first big markets for them probably will be in India and in Asian countries where tire punctures are far more common and where it’s likely that EV adoption will happen more rapidly. In China, for example, it’s not uncommon for drivers to replace a tire every six months, Vinesse notes. In North America, the average is two to three years.

Among the factors that will be tested by Michelin and GM are density considerations, the depth of spokes necessary to support the tire rims, the best sizes for optimizing fuel consumption and how letting the airless design will affect ride comfort.

Vinesse declined to address how much the companies plan to invest in the research or whether the Uptis tires will be priced at a premium compared with ordinary tires. "It will be consistent with the value they carry," he said during last week’s briefing.

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