AKRON—While the tire industry is watching developing megatrends like electric and autonomous vehicles, it should focus on realistic usage and bringing in new skills, said Robert Asper, director of core system engineering, product development for Bridgestone Americas.
Asper described how the industry can approach these trends in his keynote "Will the Tire Society Rise to Meet the Challenges Created by Future Mobility?" delivered at the 38th Annual Tire Society Business Meeting and Conference on Tire Science and Technology. The event took place Sept. 10-11 in Akron.
Looking into the past can bring perspective on current megatrends, Asper said. He pointed back to the difference between 1900 and 1913, as motor vehicles went from being the minority to the majority mobility option on the road. The evolution of a megatrend can involve a fair amount of hype, such as the debut of the Google Glass.
Instead of looking for hyped leaps ahead in technology, industry professionals should watch for a steady progress of technology. He said technology like automatic transmission, disc brakes and radial tires were adopted quickly, but the technology needed to be proven it could work first. Even a failed megatrend, when paired with working technology, can have an impact on the industry. Though Segways didn't revolutionize the modern city, tying the technology of personal electric mobility to shared mobility apps like Uber and Lyft could be the starting point for the current trend of rentable scooters in larger cities.
"That technology was good, and how things worked was good, but we weren't ready for it as a society," he said. "It didn't happen quite as quick as we thought."
Asper said four large megatrends in the industry are connected services, autonomous vehicles, shared mobility and EVs.
"Whether it's fuel cells or true battery electric, these are coming. There's no question whether they're coming, it's just a matter of time," Asper said.
Though EVs are in the spotlight today, they've been part of the automotive industry for decades, with the first production of EVs in the early 1900s, Asper said. The early models were probably more reliable than the internal combustion engine and were within a comparable price range. But communities wired for electricity weren't as widespread, and gasoline was both available and cheap. EVs had a resurgence during WWII with fuel shortages in the 1940s, even when it was difficult to get enough reliable electricity to depend on the vehicle.
"The range on that wouldn't have been great. But there was a need for it because the environment had changed. The infrastructure, the regulations and everything that goes on, those impact the megatrends," Asper said. "This is what our job is, to think these things through from multiple angles and not just, 'EV is better, we get instant torque and it's going to be more fun to drive.' That's great, but we've got to think about everything else that goes along with it."
While change can happen fast, it's not instant, he said. Many modern cars on the road in the U.S. are between 1-10 years old, and as EVs become more prevalent, the industry will still have to work with those vehicles.
"That's important and that's something that we need to think about when we're thinking about these trends," Asper said.
Do the math
Industry experts need to "do the math" when it comes to working with megatrends, meaning looking past assumptions and breaking out the engineering paper if necessary, he said. Engineers need to look at what forces the tire will actually see as megatrends affect car design going forward and use data to back up tire design choices. If 25 percent of auto passenger miles driven in the U.S. by 2030 will be done by EVs and autonomous vehicles, that means that 75 percent will still be covered by internal combustion engine vehicles. By 2040, 55 percent of new light vehicle sales will be EV, meaning 45 percent will be ICE.
"We can argue about whether there's price parity in 2025 or 2030, and we can argue about what it looks like in 2040," Asper said. "But the one that's hard to argue with is that it's not going to be 100 percent of the vehicles on the market."
The market might split, and ICE might make up more niche vehicles by that time frame, he said. But it's important to take a look at the fragmentation of the market and consider the data driving that change as engineers.
The force on tires will change as EVs take more of the market, between the weight of the vehicle and the torque that it exerts, he said. But torque doesn't have to be an enormous challenge for tire manufacturers. Original equipment manufacturers likely will work with software to tone down the torque for many of its models.
"If you're making a minivan, are you going to want that minivan to have the same off-the-line speed that you're going to want a sports car to have?" he said. "There might be certain segments of cars where you de-rate that a little bit. There's a lot that can be done with software there."
Drivers' average routes aren't likely to change in the future, between home and work, he said. But even driving short distances could make significant changes in what drivers demand of tires. For EVs, regenerative braking, free rolling and torque curve differences will be more important. Engineers should consider how quickly those vehicles will get to a stop sign, and how it will leave it, and what changes might need to be made to tires to account for that.
"These things have to work in the real world," he said. "We've got to understand the math and physics on how these vehicles are going to work."
While rolling resistance is a top priority for current tire manufacturers, EVs could change that equation in the future, Asper said. As batteries improve and become more affordable, the average range of an EV is going to extend far beyond what consumers need. When battery life is irrelevant, rolling resistance can be traded off to get better traction and NVH control.
"I can take some of those batteries out, and my weight's gone down," Asper said. "If I can charge fast enough, there might come a time where tire rolling resistance becomes less important because the fuel is cheap."
Ready to learn
Tire industry professionals also need to be willing to learn and bring in new skill sets to handle new technology as it becomes a standard part of tire manufacturing, he said. One major obstacle is learning how to standardize, incorporate and leverage sensors in tires. EVs also will challenge manufacturers on noise and vibration, extended mobility options and harnessing data.
"There's a lot of companies represented here, and we could have a lot of arguments over break on what should be in the 'Tires of the Future Will Need' box, but a lot of people agree, we're going to have sensors in tires," Asper said. "Tires are going to be designed with big data, with machine learning and AI. It's not just the technology in the tires that's going to change, it's the way that they're designed that's going to change."
For any progress toward fully autonomous vehicles, some type of tire sensor is required, as the state of the car will need to be more integrated, he said. A trained driver can tell by feel when a tire is going flat before the warning light turns on, but it's important for the car to be able to detect that as early as possible without a driver's instinct. The biggest issue in sensor development is determining a standard across the industry, rather than each OEM establishing its own sensor.
"Anytime you're doing something new, that's the hardest thing to do, to come up with the standards and come up with the collaboration," Asper said.
Looking into the future of tires means incorporating knowledge from new backgrounds like data science and machine learning, and focusing on what the unknown challenges of EVs will be, he said.
Manufacturers need to be able to collect good data from tires, and know how to interpret it correctly through machine learning. The tire industry needs experts who understand AI and machine learning to be a part of it rather than coming from Silicon Valley without the necessary industry insight.
"We've got to build bridges between the chemists and the engineers, between material science and computer science, between data scientists," Asper said. "We've got to look for those areas where we don't have someone. So who are we missing in this room that we really need to have as part of this discussion?"
Asper said machine learning and AI are likely to hit the tire industry where it already has the most data to work with, in manufacturing and chemistry. In particular, chemistry shares a lot of potential with other industries for machine learning, which gives it an additional edge.
"We'll see it where there's enough overlap with other industries, rather than things that are unique," he said. "As we learn to do it and things get internalized, I think we'll see it solving problems that we have more specific to the tire industry."
Manufacturers also need to connect with universities to develop the new young talent that will help bring the industry into the future, he said. Achieving the requirements of today's mobility required physics, chemistry, engineering and computational knowledge developed over the last 100 years, and tomorrow's skill set will require more expansion. They need to be involved in the creation of regulations for new vehicles, to make certain that they're based on science, physics and engineering rather than fear. They also need to start looking at what's unknown going forward, and even what might be "unknown unknowns," he said.
"What we are learning today between now and 2032 is going to help us deal with the challenges that all these megatrends are starting," Asper said. "If we flip the switch and everything was electric and autonomous, there would still be problems to solve. There's still math to do. There's still understanding that we need to do. It just changes."