Tyres and the Electric Car Revolution

With a loud Bavarian fanfare at the Frankfurt Motor Show this year, BMW pledged to build 25 – yes 25!!! – new electric models by 2025. Raising the bar amongst the traditional car manufacturers, BMW also plans to launch the third model in its electric ‘i’ series at Frankfurt. But it’s not just the Germans pushing ahead with electric transformation. Indian-owned Jaguar Land Rover has announced that all its vehicles will be in some way electric by 2020 and Chinese-owned Volvo will launch five new electric models between 2019 and 2021. So why does this matter to us in the tyre industry – these cars will still require tyres – right? So why can’t we just carry on with our steady evolution, making black, round things?

Well first of all that means we will again remain oblivious to the rapid technological advances happening around us! With electric cars there is a whole different design process that we, at Zenises, are now working diligently with many manufacturers. There is much to consider. Due to the large battery capacity, electric cars will need to carry more weight and be more evenly balanced than conventional cars – they are typically 20-30% heavier. Tyres for electric cars will also need much better handling characteristics due to increased torque and acceleration power. And finally (for now), rolling resistance will become even more important. Due to limitations on battery life, extending fuel economy (even in small increments) will be really important.

To match the requirements of the electric car driver, unique tyres will be needed for specific electric car models. For example in our conversations with the folks at Tesla, they want it all! I’ve already mentioned that smaller electric cars mostly care about rolling resistance to extend their journey range, but Tesla wants that PLUS good handling and grip PLUS low noise. But the Tesla is heavy, so you can’t just take a tyre off the shelf and expect it to handle the same. You have to reconfigure it to be able to absorb all those forces. So Tesla is demanding unique tyre requirements in sizes like 265/50R19. And it’s not just Tesla – the BMW i3 rides on 155/70R19 (a dimension that sounds rather strange to more traditional tyre people). In addition, for European tyre labels, the very top rating of ‘A’ wet grip and ‘A’ rolling resistance will become pretty much standard for electric cars.

But there is still one key element missing for our discussion that could add rocket fuel to the electric car revolution – CHINA! The world’s fastest growing and potentially largest automotive market has woken up to the potential of electric cars. Rumours abound that China is considering a total ban on petrol and diesel vehicles in the near future. Impossible you say – even crazy! But China always dreams big. And it’s now not just dreams, but action that could catapult China to the forefront of determining the industry’s future. Not only could electric cars help solve the chronic pollution in some of its major cities, but a determined focus on electric will allow Chinese car companies to leap forward over the inertia that old technology can entrench. What better way to take on the current global leaders – not on the battle ground set by petrol engines but in the new revamped arena that electric cars could require. And if this happens then the massive Chinese tyre industry will also start focusing on the needs of electric car consumers, largely ignoring the legacy strategies of petrol that the traditional European and American automotive giants have to still support.

This is such an exciting chapter in our industry’s history. There’s still so much to play for, but for sure it will be those in the tyre industry who embrace the technological potential and possibilities that electric cars will bring who will reap the commercial benefits for the decades to come. Simply making and selling conventional radial tyres is no longer the only future path for the tyre business. To stay ahead of the pack, you have to be nimble and aware of opportunities that our changing world will bring. Like BMW’s head of R&D said “We have become a tech company. Where once we were employing mechanical engineers, it is now about the software”. Maybe tyre companies need to start becoming tech/software companies too!