Can you explain what we might find in a tyre today? Do they still feature natural rubber?

Today’s tyres contain both natural and synthetic rubber.  Natural rubber has long been used in tyres, but there are many other ingredients that enable a tyre to achieve grip, provide comfort and last a long time in there too. Initiatives such as our Smart Tyre, which is investigating every element, not just materials or performance. It’s important to look at the whole function of a tyre, so tyre life, sustainability and manufacturing.

Can you outline some of those areas in more detail?

Sure. For example, if we look at the materials, we are increasing the percentage of biomass. We had the world’s first experimental fossil-fuel-free tyre in 2013 and followed that in 2019 with cellulose nanofibers; at each stage increasing the usage of sustainable raw materials.

That means more rapeseed flowers, pine tree oil or corn as well as increased recycled content.

These come from agricultural products or industrial waste and the final product is made using fermentation technology. Today our tyres are made from 44 per cent sustainable raw materials, however, in 2008 we presented a tyre made of 97 per cent fossil resource-free material in mass production – and based on these results we believe a 100 per cent sustainable tyre will be possible in high volume production as well.  There will be smaller changes too that all add up, such as removing plastic from tyre labels.

From a manufacturing element, we also want to be carbon neutral by 2050. We hope to achieve this by implementing changes to our processes, such as using hydrogen boilers in our Shiakava plant as a trial before aiming to roll out into series production, maybe even across global plants in 2023.

And tyres will change too?

Yes. By 2029 we will look to have proof of concept airless tyres featuring Smart Tyre technology that can be put into production by 2050. Advances in structure and materials will see tyres last longer, respond to conditions such as weather or how the car is running, with less involvement from the driver. We’ve started to use the world’s fastest supercomputer, Fugaku, an incredible machine that can perform 442 quadrillion calculations a second, to help us make our tyres last longer.

How does a supercomputer help you achieve that?

This relates to our Performance Sustaining Technology (PST). PST prevents the decline in tyre performance that occurs over time due to wear and tear. The object is for tyres to maintain like-new performance for longer. To develop this technology, you need a precise understanding of the chemical changes occurring within rubber at the molecular level over a tyre’s life. We can then control these changes. Fugaku can accurately simulate not only molecular behaviour but also actual chemical changes. Sumitomo is one of the first commercial users to have access to Fugaku, which has been used to model climate and even COVID simulations. There is a lot more work going on in simulation at present. Another interesting project is our Microscope Project with Ibaraki University. The structures formed by sulphur cross-links, which give rubber its elasticity, were thought to be closely related to rubber strength and changes in rubber properties over time. Until now, it was a bit of a mystery.

To understand these interactions, a new particle beam microscope was developed by Ibaraki University in Japan. It can evaluate actual rubber used in our mass-produced tyres rather than less representative processed test samples. Evaluating the tyres themselves provides us with image data that can be used to develop internal structures for future tyres that provide superior performance in terms of fuel efficiency, wear resistance and so forth.

What is your industry doing on a wider scale?

There are several initiatives that we, alongside other leading tyre makers and car manufacturers, have signed up to. In 2016, we joined the Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative (SNR-i), established by the International Rubber Study Group (IRSG). We are also a founding member of the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR). The latter sets global standards and its members include Ford, GM and BMW.

It’s important that alongside the materials we consider the husbanding of resources too.

To realise sustainable natural rubber, it is vital to obtain the understanding and cooperation of the full supply chain, including farmers, smallholders (small-scale household farmers), intermediary raw materials dealers, and natural rubber processors.

Without we can’t truly make a difference. We always consider and evaluate three key aspects of our tyre production; the use of sustainable raw materials, the careful husbanding of resources and fuel savings. Under these principles, we analyse the manufacturing processes and components used to produce Falken tyres, what is working and what can be improved.

What other areas can we consider?

We all have a role to play and that includes the consumer. Manufacturers have a duty to inform consumers that no matter what we do with the tyre, it still has to be maintained. I had an interesting situation this week. My neighbour had a deflated tyre. I let her know and she replied, ‘oh yes, somebody else pointed that out to me a couple of days ago!’ This was more than just a safety issue, as the tyre would not have been as efficient and driving around for a couple of days could have damaged the sidewall.  Luckily, I saw the tyre was repaired yesterday and it could provide more service. It highlights that it is important to keep an eye on tyre pressure, load and road conditions.

Can we rely on consumers, who expect far less maintenance these days?

For sure it is hard. We no longer check oil levels in our cars. Again, we are looking at sensor technology such as our Sensing Core that can detect and monitor tyre press, load, wear and road conditions to extract the most life out of a tyre. Such sensors are going to be more critical with autonomous fleets and we are already trialling systems that will identify a tyre issue and despatch a tyre fitter to an autonomous vehicle.