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The Michelin Man Wants To Talk About His Future And Reincarnation

The future of the tire business isn’t in petroleum replacement but in recycling what we’re already using.

byMichael Febbo|
The Michelin Man Wants To Talk About His Future And Reincarnation
Michelin Guide
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He isn’t just the "Michelin Man." He has a name, and it’s Bibendum—which is Latin for drinking. It’s a long story. The anthropomorphic stack of tires who looks like an inflatable mummy is 125 years old or so, depending on who you ask. I’ve been meeting up with him at races and tire events like this every few years for the last couple of decades and he hasn’t changed a bit. Still, Michelin brought a group of journalists to Sonoma, California to talk about his and every other tire’s end-of-life plan. Bibendum isn’t interested in a Viking funeral or being buried like so many of his compatriots. He’s looking for immortality. He will be recycled, into more tires.

Michael Febbo

Michelin is the largest tire manufacturer in the world. The French giant makes tires for just about anything that rolls; from bicycles to hypercars, and earthmovers to lunar rovers. It produces roughly 200 million tires per year. Technically, one company blows them out of the water making over 300 million tires a year, but I’ve never walked into a tire shop and been upsold to Lego. Depending on the size, each tire can use between 4 and 10 gallons of petroleum in the different materials that make up a tire; there are roughly 200 different materials in every tire, FYI. At this point, most of those materials can be recycled and Michelin has a goal of manufacturing tires from 100% recyclable and renewable materials by 2050, which is just one component of a broader sustainability plan.

If I believe everything I hear from executives in the automotive industry, 2050 will be when humanity finally delivers on what Star Trek has promised my entire life. I recently spoke to a representative at a car company with an unwavering goal of only building cars with recycled batteries by 2050. The 195 parties who signed the Paris Agreement committed to net-zero emissions by 2050. Even The Stones have promised their 2050 World Tour will be carbon neutral. I’m an optimist or try to be sometimes, so I believe everyone promising these things has done so in good faith, but when I hear that date, a quarter of a century out, one thing keeps sticking in the gears way at the back of my head. All of these people currently at the height of their careers in corner offices with real plants someone else cares for, will have been sipping tea on the deck of their retirement villa in Southern Spain for at least a decade prior to 2050. I suppose those commitments are easy to make for your successor. So it’s what the company is doing now that really matters.

The day began with 4 hours of hearing how Michelin will leverage its core competencies to optimize operations inside its fenceline to win the day. Michelin

Michelin has tires on sale, right now, that are 45% recycled content. The tires IMSA raced on last year were 30% recycled content and changes in the tire compounding allowed for a 30% reduction in the number of tires used during the season. It’s developed new methods of breaking down the different elements of the tire compound to separate butyl rubber and combining it with recycled styrene for reuse in tires. Carbon black, normally produced by combusting petrochemicals and used as a filler which increases abrasion resistance of the compound is also being reclaimed. Components like steel belts and various textiles are being separated for reuse or recycling too. But it isn’t just tire production that Michelin is concerned about. Up to 80% of a tire’s environmental impact can be traced back to its time operating on the car.

Rolling resistance can account for up to 40% of the energy used by a car. That can be gas or diesel burned in an engine, electricity turning a motor, or calories burned by Fred and Barney’s feet. As a pioneer in efficiency, Michelin launched its first low-rolling resistance tire in 1992, when it was about stretching every gallon of gas a little bit further. Today, the conversation has shifted away from MPGs and towards GHGs, but that’s semantics. Everyone involved in transportation is responsible for cutting down on carbon emissions, no matter the power source. Road vehicles are responsible for 29% of total U.S. emissions and 15% globally. Just for kicks, aviation produces 11.6% and ocean shipping is responsible for 2.9% globally. And yes, Michelin is working on that too by working with partners in hydrogen fuel cells and even enormous windsails for container ships.

Symbio is using Michelin technology to bring hydrogen fuel cells to the transportation industry. Febbo

As we move towards electrification, Michelin is already on 7 of every 10 EVs sold and claims its tires are, in some cases, good for an additional 40 miles of range. This is while still providing the performance demanded by consumers and manufacturers. To hammer the point home, we were able to drive laps of Sonoma Raceway in a few different EVs. A Porsche Taycan, a Mercedes-AMG EQS, and oddly, a Ford Explorer were all led around the historic 2.5-mile course by a Tesla Model 3. I started in the Explorer. Chasing down semi-exotic EVs in a fleet-white SUV checked a police chase fantasy off the bucket list. Although not the first time I’ve turned laps in anger on a racetrack in a family SUV, it had been a while, so I can’t accurately compare the tires’ performance to anything else, but I think most people would be shocked at how quickly a rental-spec penalty box can be hustled around a track.

You may have guessed, this wasn’t my first tire rodeo. I’ve been doing tire events for years and one constant is driving cars that make the new product look stellar. A Porsche Taycan with its low cg, tightly packed polar moment of inertia, stiff structure, and suspension tuned by the best in the business would make space-saver spares look good. With that said, it is impressive the amount of grip these tires generate while not only being low rolling resistance but also being able to stand up to a day of track abuse without chunking or feathering. So whoever picked the Taycan, bon travail.

A rear tire from a Porsche Taycan showing even wear after lapping at Sonoma Raceway. Febbo

Now how about that AMG? I’ll start by saying I’m a bit of an Affalterbach aficionado; one of these days I’ll own a W204 C63. I’ll also qualify my opinion by saying there were a couple of years in my career when I drove at least one 500-plus horsepower car every week. Still, I sometimes get out of a car and think “This shouldn’t be an over-the-counter product.” The AMG EQS is prescription-strength and shouldn’t be available without professional consultation. This car has way more power than anyone buying a car like this would ever need. The luxury-leaning suspension tuning (pun fully intended) isn’t helping, especially on a track. But even with stupid power and body movements best described as nautical, it wasn’t chewing through tires like most luxury cars on race tracks. That’s not to say that this car isn’t going to wear through tires like candy on the streets, but owners won’t be throwing off tread blocks driving the kids to school. 

Some of you have probably spotted the apparent irony of this story. Yes, I flew on an airplane to learn about keeping our planet habitable for humans. Don’t worry, my portion of the emissions from the round-trip flight is about 850 pounds of carbon dioxide. That is roughly equal to burning 40 gallons of gas in a car. The average American burns around 500 gallons of gas per year. If just one of you buys 10% more efficient tires because of this article, it’s worth the carbon. Whether it was worth me dealing with the TSA, United’s flight delays, the crapshoot of getting on a Boeing plane and paying $50 for a club sandwich at SFO, however, is a whole different story.

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