Stafford's advice is simple: companies should strive to work with firms working on the edge—some of which may even be outside of the tire industry completely—to continue to drive forward.
Taxi fleets such as Uber and Lyft are testing self-driving cars today. Tesla has helped push electric cars to the point where they can drive beyond 200 miles, and Google, a company more known for internet searches, is now partnering up with Detroit 3 auto makers to push the boundaries of mobility.
None of the four companies make tires, yet all are putting their fingerprints all over the industry.
“We take for granted that what we do here today will be there tomorrow,” Stafford said. “We need to be those trend setters. It's important for us to remember that companies like Tesla and Google are also companies of mobility and are moving forward in that way. We are entering a new phase of mobility innovation, one that we have not seen since the early 1900s when the auto first became apparent and widespread in the world that we know. It truly is an exciting time period.”
While autonomous vehicles still may be on the horizon, electric vehicles have arrived, but he said they're anything but new. In fact, electric engines competed with internal combustion engines in the early 1900s. While the internal combustion engine won then, Stafford said electric cars continued to evolve throughout the 1970s and "80s, and now the technology has matured.
Now, in addition to Tesla, Chevrolet and Volkswagen are getting ready to release new electric vehicle models. Stafford said the tire industry must figure out how the needs of electric vehicles will affect what's needed from tire companies. He outlined a few things:
c Tire companies had to provide new solutions for noise damping on these vehicles quickly because they're so much quieter on the road;
c Michelin worked with Tesla years ago and learned a great deal about the tire's impact on the vehicle charge range;
c Electric vehicles have instantaneous high torque, re-creating the need to manage treadwear in unexpected ways; and
c Formula-E, the wholly electric version of Formula-1, provides new opportunities for tire supply.
Stafford said Michelin is the tire supplier for the race series, and it has brought enormous amounts of information to the firm about what it means to manage the vehicle/tire coupling for electric range.
“If we do not embrace the change that is coming at us, others will and will simply bypass us in the very near future,” he said.
Autonomous vehicles are poised to bring different challenges to tire makers. Stafford said things such as handling might become less important because the vehicle will take care of that and the safety elements. But things such as driver experience, noise, comfort, software and digital components might become more important because without having to focus on driving, passengers in the vehicle can use their time in other ways.
He envisioned a world where the tire communicates to the car, which in turn communicates to the user that it needs new tires. The car sends feedback on what kind of tires to buy and the best options in the area. The user then sends the car, by itself, to go get serviced all while the owner doesn't leave the house.
“If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?” Stafford said. “The parallel to that is, if a car drives by itself, how will passengers and occupants really appreciate what we offer to it? If a car drives itself, what will they appreciate in the car that they don't appreciate today? And what won't they care about in the future?”
All of this, he said, has to be done while also striving to continue to become more sustainable.
“We have an important role to play to bring about bringing mobility of goods and services to an increasing number of people around the globe, and we must embrace with passion our responsibility to do that in a way that is sustainable,” Stafford said. “Low-cost solutions, recycled materials and renewable materials are all well within our grip and our range today. We must embrace these and drive those forward because that's what the world expects from us. But the world also wants the mobility that's been promised to them as they reach the middle class.”