GREENVILE, S.C.—When it came to the uncharted nonpneumatic tire terrain, Michelin went first. Successfully.
From beginning to Uptis: Michelin's road to airless tires
More on airless tires
This is the third of three stories examining the differing approaches each of the world's three largest tire makers—Michelin, Bridgestone and Goodyear—have taken in their journeys to develop and implement airless tire solutions.
The three-part series is part of a larger package on nonpneumatic tire development that appears in the Sept. 5 print issue of Rubber News.
Visit rubbernews.com/airless-tires for all of our airless tire coverage.
Its pioneering Tweel technology proved that airless tires weren't just disruptive ideas, forcing the industry to rethink how it could approach tire design and development. It proved that the technology worked.
With Tweel, Michelin rooted and cultivated its innovative airless technology in the off-road tire space. And that has allowed the Greenville-based tire maker to bring more than two decades of airless tire insight and success to the passenger vehicle market.
Because that's where Michelin's next big idea is taking shape with Uptis.
Michelin touts Uptis as a nonpneumatic tire that is the next critical step on its journey to achieving its ultimate "Vision"—a concept tire that follows a philosophical approach to airless tire development. It's an approach Michelin defines through connectivity, recharge-ability (retreading) and 100-percent sustainability.
"We are really in a defining moment because it's all about acceleration," Alexis Garcin, Michelin North America chairman and CEO, told Rubber News last year about automotive trends driving all innovation for the tire maker. "… We are at a time where what we have been developing over the last decades—if not last century—is coming to a point where it is extremely relevant for the environment we are in and what is in front of us."
Michelin declined an opportunity to discuss its nonpneumatic tire journey with Rubber News at this point, but has publicly signaled that it is progressing steadily forward on this front, in part because of a key partnership.
The tire maker, in 2019, heralded its partnership with General Motors, saying that the collaboration between the two companies would enhance the design and rollout of Uptis—named for exactly what Michelin sees it as: a Unique Puncture-proof Tire System.
"Uptis demonstrates that Michelin's vision for a future of sustainable mobility is clearly an achievable dream," Michelin Group CEO Florent Menegaux said in a statement when the partnership was disclosed. "Through work with strategic partners like GM, who share our ambitions for transforming mobility, we can seize the future today."
From the start, Michelin and GM targeted 2024 for a commercial rollout date. It's unclear, however, if that timeline is on track—or even ahead or behind schedule.
But the tire development is moving forward. Quickly.
"We want to bring the next generation of the Chevrolet Bolt with airless tires," Garcin reiterated to CNN Business in February, "and it's going to happen now in the next three to five years."
General Motors, which is in the midst of transitioning to a fully electric lineup, has no plans for a next-generation Bolt or Bolt EUV model, according to Automotive News. Both models are slated to be phased out of production by late 2023 and early 2024, respectively. It's a move intended to make room for higher-demand electrified vehicle segments.
It is also expected that the Orion, Mich., assembly plant that manufactures the Bolt models will be transitioned to produce electric pickups—the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, both of which will run on the auto maker's next-generation Ultium battery.
By 2025, General Motors plans to bring a total of 30 new EV models to the market, including a smaller version of the Equinox, which Automotive News noted could fill the gap Bolt models leave behind.
To be clear, neither the auto maker or tire maker has indicated that an Equinox model—or another EV model—would have the Uptis fitment.
What is clear, however, is that Michelin intends to connect next-generation vehicles—GM's EVs and others—to the roadway, and it wants to do that with nonpneumatic tires. Whether that happens at the EV fleet level or the consumer passenger vehicle level is yet to be seen.
Whenever and however Michelin releases its next airless tire, chances are it will be among the tire maker's most sustainable offerings yet. Uptis is likely to be a leap forward in Michelin's pursuit of a 100-percent sustainable tire. Even if that initial iteration is not 100-percent sustainable and recyclable, it will roll in that direction.
"The main advantage of (nonpneumatic tires)," Garcin told Cheddar News in January, "is that it is a hassle-free tire, and we can make it completely recyclable, that is our vision by 2050. And all of that makes this value proposition extremely compelling because, again, it is safer and it would build on the sustainability of the materials that we are including in those tires."
And when it comes to sustainable materials, Michelin doesn't seem to have a shortage of options.
In recent years, the tire maker has touted its acquisitions, investments and developments in bio-sourced materials and recycling—everything from orange peels and pine resins to micronized rubber powder, recycled carbon black and recycled post-consumer plastics. It's a mission that connects through Michelin's "with tires, around tires and beyond tires" strategy.
And while the tire maker has been guarded about what, exactly, it is bringing to Uptis' design and compounding, it is clear the company has a depth of insights and technologies that could bolster its nonpneumatic tire development.
An early fact sheet released in 2019 with the unveiling of the Uptis prototype, noted that the wheel assembly was aluminum, while the spoke-like structure that gives Uptis its strength and flexibility comprises "composite rubber and proprietary innovation high-strength resin embedded fiberglass."
Michelin also has promoted the inherent sustainable advantages of Uptis.
"We believe that once we extract resources, whether they are natural today and more and more recyclable and renewable tomorrow, we have to maximize the lifetime of these resources," Garcin said during Motor Bella last year. "And we have developed technologies with the 3D-printing technology we have so that we can recharge those tires. And what I am describing to you has just been revealed two years ago in Montreal in the (2019) Movin'On Summit. And that is a tire that we have been developing with General Motors, and that we aim at bringing to the market in the next five years."
By its very nature as a nonpneumatic tire, Uptis would be more sustainable than its pneumatic cousins, Michelin said. In part because there is less "tire," and therefore less materials needed.
And if you need less raw materials to make a tire, you cut down on materials waste—by about 2 million tons each year, according to the tire maker.
What Uptis doesn't save on materials can be saved on the end-of-life side.
Examining the global scrap tire market, Michelin notes that 12 percent of tires are scrapped prematurely because of issues related to irreparable cuts, punctures or other air-loss failures. At the same time, 8 percent of scrapped tires are removed from service early because of improper tire inflation.
Because punctures don't stop Uptis and there's not air pressure to maintain to ensure even wear or an optimized footprint, Michelin extrapolates that its nonpneumatic tire solutions have the potential to remove 20 percent of scrap tires from the equation. That amounts to 200 million tires annually.
And that's a sustainable place that Michelin is eager to go.
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