Rubber Meets the Road: Airless Tires, Electric Pickups and Fuel-Cell Range Extenders

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 01, 2018

MONTREAL—Michelin’s high tech and stylish “Movin’ On” conference is about cutting-edge innovation, and there was a lot of it on display at the riverside meeting site.

The ride-and-drive offered spins in a BMW i8 plug-in hybrid.(JimmyHamelin/Movin' On)

There was considerable talk about the autonomous roadmap—how we get there, and what it will look like when we do. The horrendous Uber accident was still fresh, so there was a lot of talk about making the technology safe—balanced against the very unsafe status quo, which sees 1.25 million people killed on the world’s roads annually (3,400 a day).

The Movin' On crowd. A lot of languages were on display. (Jimmy Hamelin/Movin' On)

The host displayed its airless Vision tire, and said that a version of it will eventually be sold with 3D printed treads, enabling drivers to switch from winter to summer rubber without removing the tires from the car. These tires will stay with the car for its entire life, imagine that. And by 2048, 100 percent of Michelin tires will be recycled, and 80 percent of the company’s tire material will be recycled or via renewable content. More on all that later.

RJ Scaringe of Rivian. We're in the Wild West. (Jim Motavalli photo)

There was general agreement that the coming revolution in auto use will be a profound change, but it won’t be an on/off switch. According to RJ Scaringe, CEO of new electric car company Rivian Automotive, “We’re in an interesting time,” he said, “maybe on step two or three of a 100-step process. We’re still in the Wild West.” He pointed out that it’s currently illegal to sell cars without rear seatbelts, but it’s perfectly fine to be on the road with unproven software—as happened in that Uber accident.

Scaringe, a boyish MIT Ph.D., is moving fast. Rivian has acquired a former Mitsubishi plant in Illinois with the capacity to produce 250,000 cars annually, and says he will be in production in late 2020 with two plug-in models—a “reinvention” of the seven-passenger SUV and a similarly reimagined pickup truck. “The music of our brand is adventure,” Scaringe said, “and because we see a gap in the market we will play it loudly. Some of our vehicles will play the same music, but with different instruments.”

This former Mitsubishi factory in Illinois will soon be producing electric Rivians

The two production models will debut with Level Three autonomy, but Rivians without steering wheels are on their way. The company employs 350, with several refugees from British supercar producer McLaren.

It’s unusual for a carmaker to get this close to launch without showing at least concept drawings, but Scaringe says the vehicles will be debuted at the Los Angeles show in November. Somehow, he said, the pickup is going to provide an answer to what for me is the most maddening aspect of pickup trucks—their lack of lockable, weather-proof storage (unless you buy a huge dual-cab model).

Both vehicles will be on Rivian’s shared skateboard chassis, which will also be used for forthcoming models. Range of up to 400 miles is promised, as is lightweight construction using aluminum and composites. Pricing will be “over $50,000 to under $90,000,” though presumably cheaper Rivians will come along later. “There’s a lot of excitement about this space,” Scaringe said. Yes, there is, but it’s getting a bit crowded in there.

Free rides were offered on wooden share bikes. (JimmyHamelin/Movin' On)

 Back to the tire thing. According to Cyrille Roget, Michelin’s group technical and scientific officer, “We want to recycle 100 percent of the tire. Right now, 70 percent of tires are reclaimed, and 50 percent are recycled. That’s better than plastic, with only 14 percent recovery, but it’s not good enough. We’re hoping to push the tire industry with this.”

A stylized vehicle wearing Michelin Vision air-free "tires." (Jim Motavalli photo)

Michelin’s idea to get away from virgin fossil-fuel-produced rubber is to source 50 percent from bio-sourced material, and 30 percent from recycled content. To the latter end, it recently purchased an American company called Lehigh Technologies, which makes micronized rubber powder, or MRP. This is rubber from old tires made into nano-scale particles thinner than a human hair, Lehigh vice president Tom Rosenmayer told me. Some 500 million tires have been made with that powder, he said, and the smaller the particle size the more useful it is in making new tires. “The physical properties change,” he said.

There was lots of live music from street performers. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Michelin isn’t trying to grow rubber from new plant sources (as Bridgestone is), but it is trying to take waste wood chips and process them into a rubber substitute. That would be cool, wouldn’t it? It doesn’t seem possible to get away from natural rubber entirely, at least the way we make tires now.

Making tires is complicated. Michelin doesn’t put a date on its Vision tire, which would use the 3D tread, have an airless design, and also be “connected,” so it could transit data about inflation pressure and wear status to the driver. Earlier in the day, Scott Clark, Michelin North America’s CEO, told us he is “concerned” about the Trump administration’s steel import tariffs. Tire production is global, and steel belts are a key component in today’s tires. (That material also has to be separated out when the tires are recycled.)

These Renault Kangoo vans with hybrid fuel cell and electric power set a range record. (Symbio photo)

There was lots to see at Movin’ On, but what caught my eye was a small display from a French company called Symbio. It’s in the business of adding 40-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cells to electric trucks, buses, vans and SUVs to give them more range.

Symbio's fuel cells give electric vehicles a big range boost. (Symbio photo)

Already, 250 Renault Kangoo ZE H2 vans have been converted (giving them 228-mile range), as well as a Formula 1 car with partner Pininfarina. Speaking of fuel cells, I was walking past a monitor and was stopped dead by a talk, in French, about a fuel cell- and solar-powered catamaran making its way around the world via renewable energy. I couldn't tell if the speaker was at the conference or in, I don't know, Europe. It didn't really matter, did it? I later identified the boat as the Energy Observer. Very cool.

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