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How to make an EV tire that won’t pollute the environment

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Congratulations, world. We’ve done it. Since passing the Clean Air Act in the 1970s, we’ve reduced cancer-causing particulate emissions from our cars and other sources dramatically, a change that has added years to our lives.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that we can now spend more time focusing on the remaining sources, including some unexpected ones. In an EV era, tires are becoming the greatest emitters of particulate matter, and as we’ve seen, whether it’s the microplastics in our shrimp or the preservatives in our salmon, they’re having a disturbing impact on our environment.

In an EV era, tires are becoming the greatest emitters of particulate matter

Gunnlaugur Erlendsson wants to do something about that. The affable Icelander founded Enso to tackle what he saw as a developing need for better EV tires. The UK-based company’s next big step is coming close to home: a $500 million US tire factory specifically for building eco-friendly tires for EVs. 

Well, eco-friendlier, anyway.

Founding Enso

A rendering of Enso’s proposed factory.
Image: Enso

Enso’s 2016 founding was “a bit ahead of the curve” when it comes to EV adoption, according to Erlendsson. “There was only a handful of any research reports done on tire pollution, and almost none of them were really on the subject of either microplastics or air pollution,” he said.

But the writing was on the road. Early industry movers, like the Tesla Model S, offered way more power than the internal combustion cars they competed against but also carried massive weight penalties. A Model S Plaid, for example, is about the same size as a Lexus ES but is about 1,000 pounds heavier and has more than three times the horsepower. More weight and more power means more tire wear, leading to expensive and frequent trips to the shop for fresh rubber.

While EV-specific tires are increasingly common, Erlendsson says most tire manufacturers are too focused on partnering with auto manufacturers, shipping new tires with new cars. “So even though technology exists to make tires much better today, it isn’t hitting the 90 percent of the tire industry, which is the aftermarket,” he said.

While Erlendsson said Enso is working to develop partnerships with those same vehicle manufacturers, the company’s US business model will focus on the 90 percent, creating tires in the correct fitments for popular EVs, regardless of brand, then selling them directly to customers.

More life, less pollution

Enso wants to sell its tires directly to consumers.
Image: Enso

What makes Enso’s tires different? Erlendsson was light on the technical details but promised 10 percent lower rolling resistance than regular tires, equating to a commensurate range increase. That’ll make your EV cheaper to run, while a 35 percent increase in tire life means lower wear, fewer particulates in the air, and fewer old tires sent to the incinerator, where half of all American tires go to die. 

Enso’s new factory will also handle recycling. It will be truly carbon neutral, not reliant on carbon offsets, and manufacture tires out of recycled carbon black and tire silica made from rice husks. 

But what about 6PPD, the troubling tire preservative that’s shown up in our fish and even our bodies? Enso is still using it, but its days are numbered.

Making tires out of recycled carbon black and tire silica made from rice husks

“All tire companies in the world are using 6PPD in their current production tires,” Erlendsson said. “The technology to remove 6PPD exists,” he added, but he declined to discuss the topic further, claiming restrictions due to signed NDAs. Research bodies in both California and Washington state have provided early assessments of alternatives, but none look to be a silver bullet that will save our tires without destroying the environment. 

The use of 6PPD is still permitted, but the EPA has recently issued new guidelines for monitoring its presence, and earlier this year, Washington state passed a bill regulating its use. More restrictions are coming, which Enso says it welcomes.

American-sized goals

Enso hasn’t decided where to build its factory yet.
Image: Enso

Enso is aiming for the production of 5 million tires from the new factory by 2027. Its location is still being finalized, but Enso cites Colorado, Nevada, Texas, or Georgia as likely locations. With the southeastern US becoming a hotbed for EV production and the so-called “Battery Belt” seeing huge investments from startups like Redwood Materials, that last option might be the safest bet.

A factory of that size will be a huge step up for Enso, which right now provides tires exclusively for fleet use in the UK, including the Royal Mail. Per The Guardian, a study from Transport for London, which regulates public transit in the city, shows Enso’s tires are living up to Erlendsson’s claims of increased efficiency, reduced wear, and reduced cost.

If Enso can deliver that on a larger scale to American drivers, it’ll fly in the face of typical corporate goals of selling more things to more people. Erlendsson sees this as a way to reset today’s tire economy.

“A proposition where you sell fewer tires is just not palatable to most listed companies in this industry,” he said. “It’s hard for someone with a legacy manufacturing and legacy supply chains and legacy distribution model to suddenly say, ‘I’m going to make fewer tires, and I’m going to spend more to make them,’ while not tanking your share price at the same time.”

Of course, upending a more than 150-year-old industry is no small feat, either. 

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