By 2022, the world will have purchased a staggering 2.321 billion tires across all categories – a figure that is expected to continue to grow. What’s more, in the passenger car segment, the overall trend is toward larger vehicles and electrification, both of which add weight. As a result, tires are also getting bigger and heavier, and consuming more material and resources in the process.
Faced with these complicating factors, Michelin has committed to producing only 100% sustainable tires by 2050, with a goal of 40% renewable tires by 2030. It will require a massive effort at the scale of Michelin’s operation, the company Let Me Fly, and dozens of other media outlets from around the world, travel to Cuneo, Italy, to outline the challenges, affirm its commitment, and launch rockets at its competitors.
Michelin wields astonishing clout on environmental issues because of the sheer number of basketballs it sells around the world. For example, from its first Energy tire in 1992 to its E.Primacy and Pilot Sport EV tires in 2021, the company has reduced rolling resistance by more than 50 percent, saving billions of gallons of fuel and associated emissions.
It now makes some of the most energy-efficient and durable tires on the market, so it’s a popular EV OEM brand that adds bonus miles to the mileage count, well received by automakers and drivers alike. “In fact,” said Bruno de Feraudy, the company’s vice president of automotive original equipment, “today we have three times the share of the EV tire market than Michelin’s overall OEM market share.”
But at the end of the day, this is a large manufacturing operation with a sizable environmental impact, producing consumables that degrade into particulate pollution as they are used—even if they tend to wear out at less than half the industry average (according to Michelin, 1.6 kg per 20,000 km vs. 3.7 kg per 20,000 km). And the company seems willing to raise its hand and take responsibility.
“We really need to come together now,” Michelin CEO Florent Menegaux said. “We’ve worked a lot on this before, but now we have more motivation to go faster. We need to continue to produce products that have less impact when you use them.” Small products, but we need to produce them in a way that is also environmentally compatible. Minimal use of materials and minimal energy use in production. And it’s very important that we don’t sacrifice performance to reduce our environmental impact.”
Many of the raw materials used to make tires are inherently problematic. Each tire is made from more than 200 different components, ranging from natural to synthetic rubber, as well as reinforcements such as carbon black and silica, textiles, additives and metals. “Seventy percent of materials today come from petroleum,” said Cyrille Roget, Director of Science Communication and Innovation. In fact, as recently as a few years ago, the only sustainable material in tire formulations was natural rubber itself – and at the scale of the global tire market, it was arguably not sustainable at all.
Others, like silica, have their own problems: “You could say,” he continued, “that we have a lot of sand on this planet—well, no. If we start getting the amount of silica needed for tires , the beaches would be completely free of sand, and it would take longer than a human lifetime to renew them. That’s not renewable by our definition.”
Michelin has therefore settled on its own definition of renewable energy: materials that can be recycled (some 90% of tires worldwide are now collected for recycling at end-of-life), or that can be renewed over a typical human lifetime.
In Cuneo, the company showed off two new tire prototypes that exceed its 2030 renewable energy goals: a car tire using 45% sustainable materials and a bus tire using 58% – both of which have already Certified for road use and tested on the road. The carbon black for these tires comes from recycled end-of-life tires. Recycled metal forms part of the steel belt. The blend contains sustainable oils, resins and textile reinforcements, and the silica comes from rice husks.
A global cadre of auto journalists had the chance to toss these tires on one of the most picturesque go-kart tracks in the world, mounted on a big, heavy Hyundai Ioniq 5 better suited to family commuting than hard-track cornering. There were no “less sustainable” tires on hand to test, and no one to calculate lap times, but by all accounts these greener hoops behaved like standard street tires, with good grip, almost No surprises.
By 2025, they will be mass-produced at various scales. That might seem like a long lead time in this day and age, but it’s a company of 81,000 employees with 85 factories on four continents. As part of its sustainability push, Michelin is working to keep transportation to a minimum both on supply and on sale. Not to mention the sheer volume the company handles—nearly 200 million tires a year in more than 9,000 different varieties. Some adjustment work is involved.
“We’re not here to develop a single show tire,” said Executive Vice President Scott Clark. “We’re working on integrating sustainable materials at scale while maintaining the exceptional levels of product performance that are unique to Michelin.”
speech to the factory
The product is one thing, the factory itself is another. Michelin has set some achievable goals for 2030: a 37% reduction in energy consumption and a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to 2010. Reduced water consumption by a third, organic solvents by 50% and waste by 25% compared to 2019 – across all of its factories.
Part of that involved the transition to clean energy and the rollout of solar panels on the company’s massive suburban factory sites — but technological leaps also played a major role.
A perfect example is how Michelin is now starting to fix its tires. The work previously used gas-fired boilers and water to create high-pressure steam that was forced at high pressure into the tire carcass at the end of manufacturing, dissipating heat around the tire compound and pressing the soft outer layer into the mold that forms the tread pattern and sidewalls Mark and provide the temperature required to vulcanize the rubber. This process typically accounts for about one-third of the energy consumed by a single tire.
You can see the steaming process in the awesome video below, which shows how a car tire is made, more or less from start to finish.
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPf4SU51ZKk (/embed)
How Michelin Makes Car Tires
Curing can now be done with a fully electric press. “When you cook fish, you cook it with steam,” said Pierre Louis Dubourdeau, executive vice president of manufacturing. “The good thing is that it cooks evenly, right? The heat spreads very well. The cooking time is very critical to the performance of the tire. So steam is convenient, but it’s inefficient. So we switched to an electric press. It’s very, very difficult – imagine you Trying to bake fish in a toaster. It may be grilled on the outside but raw on the inside and it’s not easy to get it even. We’ve spent 10 years designing one that doesn’t compromise quality or performance process.”
The new electrocuring process uses six to eight times less energy than previous processes, and it also uses significantly less water. The technology can be retrofitted to many of the company’s existing maintenance equipment, and the company is beginning to roll it out globally. The company’s biggest tires are still out of the question, but Michelin says it expects more than 70 percent of its curing equipment to be fully electric by 2050.
On a walking tour of the company’s vast Cuneo factory, it’s astounding to see the level of automation involved, from the barrel line that makes the carcasses, to the Wonka-style snake-like conveyor belts, to the Dalek-style single-tire transport robots on the floor On the roam, a robotic arm lifts raw tires into the press and pulls cooked tires out. A new AI-enhanced quality inspection system now assists human tire evaluators in fault-finding and classification, while self-driving electric semi-trailer trucks haul tire loads around the field.
At the end of the day, as the world transitions to clean energy and a more ecologically cautious approach to the global economy, big multinationals like this are going to have a lot of heavy lifting to do. “NGOs alone won’t achieve anything,” says CEO Florent Menegaux. “You need companies. Companies are meant to bring together the best minds to produce something, whether it’s a service or a good. I think companies are indispensable when it comes to solving the problems the world has created. They know how to put things together to generate innovation – and make a profit so they can reinvest.”
Any sustainable transformation of the tire business depends not only on technology and corporate commitment, but also on global sustainability regulations, incentives, standards and the decisions of individual and OEM-level tire buyers. But it’s certainly fascinating to see how a market leader rises to the challenge.
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyW6jZPLZLo (/embed)
Michelin Sustainable Tires