There's no debating the future of mobility has been "the" topic to talk about in recent years. And while the coronavirus global pandemic may have slowed down the progression of electric and autonomous vehicles a bit, it appears that may be just a small speed bump on the road to the future.
The transportation revolution represents a big opportunity for tire manufacturers. They can play key roles in helping to develop technologies for one of the most important components of EVs and AVs as they evolve into what many expect will be the key drivers of transportation.
Of course, a lot can happen between now and whatever the future brings. While the promise is high, much distance still must be traveled before the future automotive technologies take over from the internal combustion engine.
But a number of industry experts speaking (virtually of course) at two recent tire conferences—the International Tire Exhibition & Conference and the Tire Society annual meeting—put forth a similar theme: it's not a matter of if, but when. That seems to be the case particularly for electric vehicles.
Brian Goldstine, president of mobility solutions and fleet management for Bridgestone Americas, likened the transportation transformation to the time when the wooden wheel gave way to the rubber tire. Bridgestone has set an aggressive timeline for the switchover. The tire maker looks for internal combustion vehicle sales to peak next year; it forecasts EVs to be more economical than traditional drivetrains by 2025; expects half of all vehicles sold by 2030 to be an EV or hybrid; and predicts that by 2035, AVs will account for 24 percent of sales.
Chris Helsel, chief technology officer at Goodyear, sees the adoption of autonomous vehicles as a place where the tire, the only point of contact with the roadway, will be right in the middle of product development. He said Goodyear will employ what it calls "disruptive collaboration," as smart tires will combine with the intelligence of the vehicle to create what Helsel calls "the ultimate riding machine."
On the electric vehicle side—which all parties seem to see being the leading future technology at this point—changes are needed that cause consumers to buy these vehicles in far greater numbers than they do today. Besides making them more economical, there needs to be a longer battery range and a leap in recharging infrastructure.
One more thing that will help, according to several speakers, is a wider range of vehicle choices. While today's market touts only roughly 100 EV models worldwide, that number is projected to hit 325 two years from now and close to 450 by 2025, including options for light trucks and SUVs that dominate the U.S. market.
Not everyone thinks everything will go smoothly for the new technologies, though. Bernard Swiecki of the Center for Automotive Research said his group expects 94 percent of vehicles to have internal combustion engines in 2027. He also has a hard time, for a variety of reasons, seeing the future that many have predicted for autonomous vehicles becoming a reality. Level 3 and 4 autonomy are possible, but he doesn't expect level 5—purely driverless vehicles—to happen in his lifetime.