HANNOVER, GermanyInvesting in future vehicle technologies is a tricky business, but mega-supplier Continental sees rubber tires rolling confidently into the future even as it invests billions helping automakers develop autonomous and electrified vehicles.

CEO Elmar Degenhart tells reporters here in a former tire plant turned into a technology center that it is likely new ownership models and self-driving cars eventually will reduce the number of vehicles in major cities, but he says overall miles traveled are expected to increase as the disabled and those too young or too old to drive become more mobile.

In other words, in the future there might be fewer vehicles on the road but they will log more miles and require many more replacement tires.

And long after steering wheels are optional on vehicles, rubber tires still will be standard equipment.

Backing up Degenhart’s optimism, Continental spent half of a 2-day technology preview for the upcoming Frankfurt Motor Show briefing journalists on how future tires will remain relevant by being connected, substantially improving the range of electric vehicles, and might even be made from dandelions in five or 10 years.  

Continental started out 140 years ago as a manufacturer of rubber parts. It didn’t invent car tires, but it did produce the first one with a patterned tread in 1904 and now manufactures 150 million units annually, making it the fourth largest tire manufacturer behind Bridgestone, Michelin and Goodyear, says Gerrit Bolz, head of process development and tire assembly.

More importantly, Continental’s €40.5 billion in total revenue last year ranks it among the world’s top four auto parts manufacturers.

The best car in the world – autonomous or not – isn’t worth much without a good set of tires to enable it to drive properly, but company officials acknowledge that most consumers (and Wall Street analysts) find tires boring. So despite its bullish outlook, round black doughnuts now account for about 26% of the company’s total revenue, down from almost 50% 15 years ago.

Even so, the company’s passion for the tire business has not waned. Just last October it acquired Indiana-based Hoosier Racing Tire, which supplies tires for racing applications around the world.

Nikolai Setzer, executive board member for Continental’s tire business says, “The acquisition of Hoosier is an exciting next addition to our product portfolio and will support our growth strategy, especially in the ultra-high-performance segment.”

Like most big suppliers, Continental has been broadening its product portfolio in the past decade to include more components related to high-efficiency powertrains, interiors, advanced driver assist systems and connectivity.

It recently was announced Continental would be the system integrator for collaboration between BMW Group, Intel and Mobileye for automated driving. As a system integrator, Continental will play a key role in the industrialization of the platform for other automotive manufacturers and bringing the joint solutions to market more quickly.

But the supplier still prides itself on the variety of rubber it sells, from bicycle and motorcycle tires all the way up to heavy-duty truck tires and elaborate hand-cut prototypes for concept cars. It even makes Conti-branded soles for Adidas athletic shoes.

Continental engineers brag they offer 20 different sets of factory installed tires for picky Porsche Macan CUV buyers, including winter, summer and all-season in different sizes and performance capabilities.

In the 1980s, exactly one set of tires was available on the Land Rover D90 SUV.

Contrary to what many uninformed consumers may think, the average tire is a highly engineered part that is as complex and conflicted as a Shakespearian character. Every improvement in one area seems to impair a positive characteristic in another. For instance, enhancing grip for better handling hurts wear; reducing rolling resistance to improve fuel economy increases stopping distance on wet pavement.

Thousands of New Materials Tested Every Year

Continental has about 8,000 employees working to solve these conundrums with chemistry, physics, tread patterns and endless computer simulations. Thousands of new materials and compounds are tested every year in the company labs here to make tires wear better, improve vehicle performance and be impervious to road hazards.  

Their work already has yielded run-flat tires that can survive 50 nail punctures and special “silent” tires that make the interior of the latest Audi A7 quieter.

Grip and safety always will be of utmost importance, but new priorities are being added to Continental’s to-do list for future development, engineers say.

Lots of work is being done in materials research and adding sensors to tires, but reducing rolling resistance while preserving grip and controlling excess noise will get up to 50% of tire research and development resources in the near term. Tires that roll more easily have “huge potential” for improving EV range, Continental officials say.

However Continental’s Bolz says he is “skeptical” of work being done by some competitors in the areas of spherical and airless tires. He says such projects are great at garnering attention, but Continental is not pursuing research in this area because the designs present potentially insurmountable damping and noise issues.

But connected tires definitely are on the menu, and so is lightweighting. Tires already have air pressure sensors, but they will be capable of capturing and transmitting much more information in the future about road surface conditions, traction and vehicle dynamics. Embedded sensors can “do much, much more (than now), but we won’t talk about it,” says one executive.

Another key area of research is more sustainable and environmentally friendly sources of natural rubber, still a major component in vehicle tires.

Andreas Topp, head of materials and process development, says natural rubber cannot be completely replaced with synthetic rubber in a tire, because the natural material has specific qualities that can’t be replicated.

Continental chemists claim to be the first to develop a rubber compound based on dandelion latex and the first to succeed in cultivating a type of dandelion that produces large amounts of the latex on which natural rubber is based.

Unfortunately, while the material offers great promise, officials say it will take five to 10 years to create the economies of scale necessary to productionize the material.

Continental also is experimenting with making lighter, thinner tires, but as always, there are potential negative consequences to these moves. Replacing traditional steel belts with super strong aramid (Kevlar) belts could dramatically reduce weight, but the material costs three times as much as steel belts, a deal breaker in today’s cost-competitive market.

One bright spot on the horizon in terms of cost and wear is the fact that self-driving cars likely will be easier on tires. That’s because they will accelerate and stop more smoothly and gradually than humans.

dwinter@wardsauto.com