Continental sets EV wheels in motion
It might be impossible to reinvent the wheel, but Continental is on its way to create more sustainable tires.
Founded in Germany in 1871, Continental AG (affectionately known as Conti) is a leading manufacturer of automotive equipment, including tires, brake systems and internal car electronics. When it was created almost 150 years ago, the company focused solely on rubber manufacture.
By 1898, it was called upon to begin creating some of the first designs for automotive car tires, with single treads, in an era where cars often still shared the roads with horses and carts. Now, the car is the dominant vehicle on the road, but the age of combustion engine models is drawing to a close, as EVs take over.
This switch to electric-only models is part of a broader shift towards more sustainable ways of driving. Tires aren’t exempt even, and Continental is using new and exciting ways to create them with less of an impact on the environment. We spoke with Continental, to learn how they plan to set EVs in motion and be futureproof.
Cars for a new era
The future is here, when it comes to car manufacturing. Germany is a powerhouse in the automotive world, having manufactured over four million cars in 2019 alone. As many as one in seven cars Germany creates are exported to the UK. This does, however, come at a cost: a battery-powered EV will have already generated 46 per cent of its total carbon footprint in the factory, before having driven a single mile.
We do see in all markets that sustainability – albeit in varying degrees – is becoming increasingly important to our customers and stakeholders alike.– Claus Petschick, Head of Sustainability, Continental Tires
On average, a modern passenger car tire contains up to 25 components and 12 different rubber compounds. Pure natural rubber, which is sourced from the rubber trees, still makes up a high percentage of a tire. The transport of natural rubber causes emissions, and the cultivation of the rubber tree entails the risk of monocultures in the growing areas. That’s why manufacturers have also embraced synthetic rubber, formed from different chemicals and crude oil. As this synthetic rubber is not resistant enough for a car tire, most tires have been made by embracing a hybrid approach, using the organic materials in combination with the synthetic.
This allows tires to withstand the high mechanical stress from spending time on the road. However, you can see the problem – crude oil is finite and producing the sap means the risk that farmers chop down a large number of trees to create space for rubber trees to produce raw materials for tires.
One of Continental’s concerns is to stop importing natural rubber exclusively from the tropics in the future and to produce it as close as possible to the tire plants in order to prevent ongoing deforestation and reduce the CO2 emissions caused by long transport routes. Carla Recker, Head of Expert Field Materials Chemistry & Taraxagum at Continental explains: “We have been working on this since 2011 in our unique Taraxagum project, where we extract natural rubber from Russian dandelions.”
As a result of this project, Russian dandelion roots provide natural rubber with the same quality as the rubber tree.
The idea is simple – the Russian dandelion produce a sap which is able to be extracted in a water-based process to create a form of rubber which possesses the same quality as rubber tree sap. “Dandelions can be cultivated in moderate climates worldwide”, according to Carla Recker, who adds that “This opens up entirely new options in terms of our sourcing strategy.”
Back in 2014, Continental built a prototype tire for passenger cars which, in testing, proved that it is every bit as impressive as tires made from conventional natural rubber. In 2019, the company launched its first Taraxagum product to the market: the Urban Taraxagum bicycle tire. This Urban Taraxagum prototype is the first series production tire from Continental to be made using natural rubber obtained from the dandelion plant, which is cultivated, extracted and processed in Germany.
But Russian dandelions aren’t the only thing Continental are using to keep their carbon footprint low, while producing high-end car tires. The manufacturer is shifting operations, keeping them closer to their prime customers – an approach they call “In the Market, For the Market.” As a result, production will move to a series of mega plants, which offer high productive capacity and remarkable economies of scale.
Continental goes that step further. “In 2019, our energy consumption was about 17 per cent lower than the average consumption of our competitors. From 2025, our plants will no longer use fossil fuels, and by 2030, we will have reduced our energy consumption by a further 20 per cent”, says Claus Petschick, Head of Sustainability of Tires at Continental. To seal the deal, by 2050, the supply chain at Continental Tires will be 100 percent carbon neutral.
Vision 2030 is in reach
To reach these lofty aims, Continental has a roadmap it wishes to follow, dubbed Vision 2030. The company has tire manufacturing facilities in all regions of the world and continue to see the Asian continent as well as North America as interesting markets with strong growth potential.
Vision 2030, the company’s strategic programme, will see the world’s third largest tire manufacturer work towards a set of principles or pillars, one of which is sustainability. This means embracing the increasingly popular idea within Europe of a circular economy, ensuring that the supply chain is sustainable and economically viable. “We do see in all markets that sustainability – albeit in varying degrees – is becoming increasingly important to our customers and stakeholders alike”, explains Claus Petschick.
We realised that the vision of Extreme E fits perfectly with Continental’s corporate philosophy such as technological innovation sustainability and diversity. That’s why we decided to support the project– Catarina Silva, Team Leader for Product Management Summer, 4×4 and Van Products, Continental
The supply chains come back to the sourcing of the rubber. Looking at the rubber supply chain in the round, Continental estimates that up to six million smallholders are completely dependent on rubber extraction. Not only that but Michael Radke, Head of Advanced Purchasing & Supply Chain Sustainability of Tires at Continental tells us: “Up to seven different intermediaries, as well as processing companies, are involved before the natural rubber reaches our factory gates.”
Such an extensive network of supply poses a challenge when it comes to tracking the raw materials from the source, so Continental is ramping up its response to improve transparency through strategic projects, actively working on increasing sustainability within the natural rubber value chain. The aim is to create better working conditions for smallholders, protect existing rainforest areas and ensure greater transparency and knowledge in the natural rubber sector through digital systems.
Continental is working in concert with a development agency called Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) to provide smallholders with trainings on the sustainable cultivation of rubber. Digital traceability systems are implemented along the supply chain.
As a founding member of the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR), Continental is actively driving forward solutions to improve traceability together with partners. The company is also involved in a wide range of projects, such as the Rubberway joint venture, which specialises in identifying sustainability risks in the natural rubber supply chain.
Continental enters the world of EVs
As a founding member of Extreme E, Continental has an interest in ensuring that its products can be used in not just conventional combustion engine car manufacturing, but for EVs too. Continental was first approached in the autumn of 2018 by the organisers of Extreme E with the initial concepts, as they were openly looking for a tire manufacturer with the experience to become a developer, supplier and strategic partner, when the time came
“We realised that the vision of Extreme E fits perfectly with Continental’s corporate philosophy such as technological innovation sustainability and diversity. That’s why we decided to support the project”, Catarina Silva, Team Leader for Product Management Summer, 4×4 and Van Products at Continental reveals.
What attracted Continental was that Extreme E would be the world’s first motorsports event to go beyond the pure attraction of the main events, highlighting a higher cause – raising the awareness among sports fans of climate change, through a range of exciting races in places greatly affected by the phenomenon.
Diversity is another factor which clinched it for Continental – that’s because each team which competes in the Extreme E races will comprise of one male and female driver, both getting equal time behind the wheel. “Within our company, we work consistently to promote the various categories of diversity, not least gender diversity…Extreme E is another building block for the external communication of this topic”, says Catarina Silva.
Continental’s tires – built to last
It’s easy to see how Extreme E will be a true test of Continental tires. With environments ranging from dry, arid desert to frosty cold locales all in the space of one year, you might think it’s simply impossible for a tire to avoid falling flat at some point. Fortunately, Continental took on this challenge, and came up with a design for all seasons.
Tires usually require the manufacture to include some form of pattern on each one to ensure they grip to roads, but the tires required of Continental for Extreme E would need to work off-road too. Catarina Silva goes into detail: “The pattern features the ideal combination of traction ribs and pockets to get maximum traction out of any terrain…the outcome is a tire that is robust and durable enough to cope with such unforgiving conditions as it will encounter in the Amazon Rainforest and Sahara Desert.”
Not only is the tread designed to cater to this variety of environments, but Continental has also reinforced the tire carcass, for added strength to avoid damage as the Extreme E racers venture off-road. In principle, Continental claims tires for EVs need not differ from those used on combustion engine cars. However, one adjustment they can make is to help reduce energy consumption through designing the tires to have low rolling resistance.
EVs are often heavier than other cars due to the added weight of a battery, but the manufacturer mentions that heavier vehicles have become increasingly common, regardless of their power sources, so tires have been adjusted accordingly over time.
Continental has further developed a large part of its product range, so that they now meet the requirements of EVs and hybrids, while at the same time being able to sustainably reduce the emissions of combustion vehicles.