Fully autonomous vehicles will be the future of transportation in the U.S. and around the civilized world. Or not. As David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, likes to say, there is nothing certain about the future of the auto industry other than uncertainty. Change will come fast, but nobody can even say at this point what the prevailing future powertrain will be for vehicles.
But work on autonomous vehicles continues at a furious pace, particularly with the potential to reduce vehicle-related deaths and injuries by up to 90 percent. So all companies that make a living tied to the auto industry—including producers of tires and rubber components—must be prepared to be a part of the solution as the technology advances.
The process will take longer than the most optimistic proponents of AV transportation predict. But as AVs are the talk of many industry-related conferences these days, auto suppliers are taking steps to ensure they are at the front of the technological changes that will take place.
Germany's Continental A.G. is unique among the major tire manufacturers in that over the past two decades it has taken steps to expand its reach way beyond tire and rubber components. The firm just joined a self-driving platform developed by BMW Group, Intel and Mobileye, with Conti responsible for integration of components and software.
An official for Continental Tire the Americas said at the recent Clemson Tire Industry Conference that "connected tires" are the building blocks that will lead to the AVs of the future. He added that the wide array of systems and components Conti offers can make up roughly 90 percent of a vehicle.
Michelin North America's chief digital officer said at the same conference that all tire companies must become technology companies first and tire producers second, or risk becoming irrelevant. He said that all mobility services—including tires—have a digital component, and tire makers must be poised to take advantage of all the information a tire can provide.
Non-tire rubber product makers also are working to keep pace. Freudenberg Group CEO Mohsen Sohi said the firm sees autonomous driving as an industry game changer, though the full scope and impact are still unknown. While many rubber parts may become obsolete in future drivetrains, AVs will have more sensors and electronics, and that could bring opportunities for housings, gaskets and seals.
Many obstacles remain to becoming a society that relies on fully autonomous driving. James Popio, vice president Smithers Rapra, said at the Clemson conference that AV systems could add up to $7,500 to a vehicle's price, which could turn away many buyers. There also are no rules or regulations concerning AVs at this point, not to mention government-defined testing procedures.
There's also the matter of spending enormous amounts of money to wire the nation's roads and intersections at a time when getting funding for basic road maintenance is a struggle.
Automotive suppliers must consider all these factors as AV technology progresses. For as Cole points out, the only thing certain is uncertainty.