Are tyre particulates the next big environmental problem?
20 April 2022
Vehicle particulates do not just come from the emission system. Tyres also create fine particles that can affect the environment, cause air pollution and create health problems. Yet unlike emissions, there is no easy way to manage tyre particulates. Autovista24 Editor Phil Curry and Deputy Editor Tom Geggus discuss the problem with tyre particulates, the role of electric vehicles, and solutions the automotive industry is working on.
The issue of particulate matter is not solely the problem of emission systems. Any parts that create friction are susceptible to producing fine particles that can impact air-pollution levels or harm the environment. In this respect, tyres are a big part of the particulate problem and have been since the inception of the car over 100 years ago. For vehicle sustainability to continue, tyre wear must be a factor in automotive research.
However, unlike the emissions system, there is little that can be done to halt the creation of tyre particulates. Instead, tyre suppliers and vehicle manufacturers are doing their best to slow their creation, while drivers too have an important role to play.
According to German vehicle-testing agency ADAC, around 500,000 tonnes of particulates are created by tyres each year in Europe. These range from 10 microns in size to 2.5 microns – an atmospheric size.
The electric-vehicle problem
Carmakers are shifting their focus away from internal-combustion engine (ICE) cars to electric vehicles (EVs). One reason for this is the issue of air pollution, a matter that increased after the Dieselgate scandal. This saw a lot of attention around the subject of particulates, especially nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution. The decline in the diesel market meant drivers moved towards petrol models, creating a problem with CO2 emissions that the car industry was trying hard to avoid.
But electric cars have their own part to play in tyre particulate matter creation. They are often heavier than standard ICE counterparts, and this places more pressure on the tyres. This, in turn, creates more friction with the road surface, and therefore more wear. Electric-vehicle sustainability is not, therefore, reliant on its zero-emission capabilities alone.
The UK’s environment secretary George Eustice recently highlighted to MPs that it is unknown how far switching from ICE to EVs will help. ‘There is scepticism,’ he said. ‘Some say that just wear and tear on the roads and the fact that these vehicles are heavier means that the gains may be less than some people hope, but it is slightly unknown at the moment.’
In answer to this, one of the country’s automotive organisations, the RAC, commissioned a report from battery electrochemist Dr Euan McTurk. He used real-world findings to explore the actual impact of electromobility on tyre and brake wear.
RAC EV spokesperson Simon Williams said: ‘George Eustice’s remarks about EVs not being as green as some may think were very unhelpful and could put some drivers off making the switch to zero-emission driving. There are far too many negative myths surrounding electric cars which need to be busted as soon as possible in order to speed up the electric revolution.’
One solution to the tyre particulates problem is to filter them away from the environment. For emissions systems on petrol and diesel cars, this is done with a particulate filter fitted in line on the exhaust system. However, it would be difficult to fit a filter to a tyre, while the potential of a suction device behind the wheel is limited due to restricted space and constantly moving objects.
Therefore, fitting filters to areas where particulates can enter the environment, such as around the drainage system to prevent ingression into water supplies, is something that could help reduce the problem. This is the thinking of German carmaker Audi who, together with the Technical University of Berlin, is developing tyre-particulate filters to help protect the ecosystem.
The Urbanfilter can be combined individually depending on the road and traffic situation. They trap the particles as close as possible to the location of creation – before rainwater can rinse them into the sewers. Laboratory and field testing has shown the filters are effective, but can they work together to solve the issue of tyre particulates?
Transcript – Are tyre particulates the next big environmental problem?
Phil: Hello and welcome to the Autovista24 podcast. Now the automotive industry in the future will be a sustainable one full of different technologies, but currently the industry is battling a problem from the past particulate matter. Now this is not just limited to the emission system. Any product that creates friction can also create particulates. One of the biggest contributors to particulate matter away from the emission system is a product that is very much part of the industry of the future as it is part of it today and was so over a hundred years ago when the first car rolled out onto the road. In fact, it could not have rolled out onto the road without this product. I’m talking about the tyre. These are the only contact patches between the vehicle and the road and create friction as a result, which therefore generates particulate matter that can get dispersed into the environment, causing all sorts of problems. If the automotive industry wants to be sustainable, it needs to consider tyre particulates matter, just as much as it does with any other environmental impact that a vehicle may have.
Phil: I’m Autovista24 Editor, Phil Curry and today I’m joined by Tom Geggus, Autovista24’s Deputy Editor. Tom thanks for coming along.
Tom: Hey Phil, great to be here. Really looking forward to getting this discussion off and rolling. Tyre particulate matter is something of an upcoming topic because of course, for the longest time as you mentioned we’ve been really focused now on electrification, which means we’re talking about batteries, it means we’re talking about how much vehicle emissions we are going to save per fleet, whatever it is. Just what that conversion is going to be from fossil fuel to electric, but something that we are not hearing quite as much of as yet is what this means for tyres. How does the sustainability movement really impact the point of contact between the vehicle and the road where the rubber hits the road effectively? So how do we actually measure a tyres particulate matter emissions?
Phil: Well, this is the thing Tom, because we know about nitrogen oxide, we know about particulate matter from diesels. As I said, particulate matter has been a buzzword in the industry now for a number of years. To be honest, it’s been around longer than the consumer has been aware of it. Obviously, the diesel gate scandal bought that into the public domain, but particulate matter is not just linked to the emission system as we all know. Anything that is abrasive, that wears will produce particulate matter. Now this particulate matter can be defined by its size, but in particular here we’re talking about PM 2.5.
Now that is the small particulate matter, the small abrasive pieces that come from a tyre. Not just a tyre, there’s also brake pads that produce this particulate matter as well. But the reason the tyre is so crucial is because of the future of the motoring industry. We’re looking at electric vehicles and we’re looking at car makers producing more SUVs as a result. Brake pads are going to be less used on an electric vehicle because they will look to use regenerative braking alongside traditional braking. And it’s widely understood that you would need to replace your brake pads less frequently with an electric vehicle, as you would do a standard internal combustion engine. But, electric vehicles are also heavier and we all know the heavier the vehicle, the more pressure on the tyre and therefore the more it will wear and the more wear the more particulate matter.
In fact, the German association ADAC recently put out a report that said that according to recent studies around 500,000 tons, that’s half a million tons of tyre abrasion particles are produced every year in the EU. Now for a long time it was not really clear what the size range of rubber particles was and what impact tyre abrasion had on people and the environment. But, rubber does belong to a family of plastics and the ADAC report states that abrasions from car tyres accounts from estimated one third of all microplastic emissions in Germany alone. Most of these tyre abrasive pieces are 50 PM in size. They’re very course and they’re not even forming airborne particles, but the smaller pieces do and these smaller pieces can have a huge impact on air quality, on quality of life. So, when we talk about particulate matter and we’ve talked a lot in the past about particulate matter from diesel vehicles, as I just mentioned, that’s being solved now we have diesel particulate filters. We have petrol particulate filters. It’s very difficult to put a particulate filter onto a tyre because you’ll have a very bumpy ride if you do. So, we need to be looking at making tyres more sustainable. We need to be looking at making sure that any tyre particulates matter, any rubber that comes from a tyre is stopped from getting either into the air or into the water streams because obviously if it sits on the road and the rain comes down, it flushes it all into the water cycle. And we need to make sure as well that drivers and car makers, especially car makers are recommending the right tyres for the right vehicles because an electric vehicle really, really, really is going to rely on the correct tyre going forward.
Tom: You mentioned the filters Phil. It does make me think well if we have particulate matter coming off a tyre, hitting the road and then potentially being washed into a water system, which we really want to avoid, isn’t there space for a filter to say, be put at the side of the road? Could somebody do that?
Phil: Exactly. Now we’re all familiar with storm drains. We’re all familiar with the drainage grates that we see on the side of the road. These take any water, any rainfall from the road. They take it down, they take it into the water system and of course, if there’s any particulate matter, any tyre particles, or any plastic particles, even any litter on the road, it could get washed into this drainage system which could then get into the water system which could then get into our own water supplies. Like you said, that’s not what we want at all.
Audi is developing filters that will help to prevent this from happening. They’re working together with a technical University of Berlin, the department of urban water management specifically, and they have created the urban filter. This can be combined individually, depending on the road and traffic situation. It traps particles as close as possible to the location of their creation and this is before rainfall can rinse them into the sewers in the water system. Now, obviously one of the problems that you’re going to have with a filter like this is that you’d think it would clog up. So, this is an area that the technical University of Berlin and Audi are making sure it doesn’t happen because if you get a crisp packet enter the filter, it’s not going to work and then you could even risk flooding the road as a result. But, the devices have managed to permanently trap genuine street cleaning waste, cigarette filters, microplastics up to three millimetres in size. Even lids to disposable coffee cups without getting clogged, without hampering their performance. It doesn’t just work when it’s drizzling. They’ve also tested this against very heavy rainfall and they’ve also put these and deployed these around Berlin as well because they want to have a real-world test of this as well.
Now it’s really clear to understand that we can’t stop all particulate matter coming off of a tyre. So there needs to be other solutions out there and I think filtering anything that can go through to the water system is the best way of doing it. This is still in this research phase. Audi is hoping to roll something out, but of course it could also be quite expensive and it’s going to fall down to local governments, councils. It’s going to fall down to them to be installing this and there’s a lot of drains along the road. I mean I’ve never counted number of drains as I’m driving along, but I have noticed quite a few and if you think about it, if you’re going to have to install a filter on all of those and then you’re going to have to make sure that you replace them when they’re clogged up, when they do eventually get clogged up or worn out. And again, Audi is working with connectivity in this respect to ensure that they can monitor the filters effectively and replace them when they’re needed, but you’re looking at a huge cost there. It’s more a case of preventing the particulate matter getting into the water system after it’s been created, but of course there has to be a way and the automotive industry really should be looking for ways to prevent excess particulate matter in the first place. And I think that means looking at the tyre construction, looking at the vehicle that they’re going to be fitted to and developing something specifically for that vehicle.
Tom: And I think Phil, that’s why we are seeing an emergence now of companies recognizing the need for more sustainably grafted tyres where they’ve gone ahh yes wait a minute, we’ve got all this other work going on with electric vehicles in particular, but we’ve really got to look out for those particulate matters coming from tyres. So, for example you’ve got the likes of Enso, E N S O a sustainable tyre company which is actually the first tyre company to achieve B corporation certified business status. Which in effect his way of saying it’s designated as excelling in making a sustainable and ethical impact. So, it’s more inclusive, equitable, and has more regenerative economies and it’s found to develop new generations of energy efficiency, low mission tyres with an exclusive focus on electric vehicles. So they’ve gone ok, tyres need to be better, it needs to be greener, but they also need to be better designed for electric vehicles because whilst you can just keep on making tyres and they can be applicable with both ICE, internal combustion engines and electric vehicles EVs, if we’re really planning forward to this point where new vehicles, we’re not going to be seeing any new ICE vehicles come 2030/2035 in Europe, in the EU. There’s going to be a need to very specifically focus on EV tyres.
As we’ve already started to recognize here tyre emissions, they’re largely unregulated. Huge regulation for what comes out of your tailpipe, but less so than what comes off your tyres. But, tyre pollution is now emerging as quite a leading source of air and ocean pollution with pretty serious health and environmental implications. So, as well as trying to increase EV range, ENSO is focused on making tyres more durable to reduce tyre pollution and increase the number of renewable raw materials used in tyres to achieve better net zero goals. Now, this has substantially reduced the impact of tyres across life cycles and will cut the need for a frequent tyre replacement which means ultimately reducing waste and reliance on scarce raw materials which is something that vehicle manufacturers are really keen to do.
Phil: We’re not saying here that the automotive industry isn’t doing enough and it’s not even the biggest source of particulate matter in Europe anyway, but it does have a role to play. Just to give you an idea I found some figures presented by the UK government. They got these from Ricardo Energy and Environment which highlights that manufacturing industries and construction alongside domestic combustion are the biggest sources of particulate matter, PM 2.5 just the smallest particulate matter available. Road transport and industrial processes use of solvents are also equal, but we can actually see that road transport has cut its particulate matter output since 1990. At that point, it was around about 35,000 tons of particulate matter. Today It’s more like around about 20,000 tons. So, there is progression, there is working and going in the correct way and yes, Tom, like you said tyre manufacturers have a big part to play in that. That’s why reports from associations such as ADAC are really crucial to car makers, to tyre manufacturers understanding what they need to do and their current levels of particulate matter generation.
So ADAC’s report which came out early this year found on average the tyre abrasion of a typical vehicle is around 120 grams per 1000 kilometres. There’s no fundamental differences in tyre abrasion between summer, winter and all season tyres, but there is a tendency for tyre abrasion to be slightly lower on summer tyres than on a comparable winter tyre size. In almost all the tyre sizes it tested, there are tyres that could achieve a low operation of less than a hundred grams per 1000 kilometers. But, they did find that summer tyres sized around 225 40 18, particularly racing tyre models which obviously are designed to do higher speeds, probably last a little bit less longer. All of these have above average tyre abrasion.
Tom: Now obviously particulate matter, wherever it’s coming from is cause for concern. But the thing is when we come to talk about electromobility, it can be used by some as a tool to question how green an EV really is, because you might say well, it’s an electric car there’s nothing coming out of the tailpipe. And somebody goes, well, yes, but it has tyres. And as you said earlier, Phil, if it has contact, if there’s a sense of abrasion, if that tyre is emitting any kind of particulate matter, then no, that EV does have some kind of effect on the planet, of course it does. But as we’ve said, the argument then goes a little bit further highlighting how much heavier EVs are, how this can really be quite detrimental to electric vehicles and in fact, looking back to the UK, there were remarks from the environment secretary George Eustice that electric vehicles might not be as green as they seem. He actually told MPS that fine particulate matter as you alluded to earlier for PM 2.5, which contribute tens of thousands of deaths each year. Maybe worse with electric cars because of them being heavier. He told the commons environment food and rural affairs committee that the unknown thing at the moment is how far switching from diesel and petrol to electric vehicles will get us.
There is scepticism, but enter the RAC which is an automotive association, pretty famous one within the UK. They commissioned battery electrochemist, Dr. Euan McTurk to actually address these marks. Now using some real-world experience, he’s able to demonstrate that EVs don’t actually get through tyres quite as fast as some claim. He looked at British gas as one example, which currently operates some 800 pure electric vans and reports that in its latest large heavier electric vans have done 15,000 miles and have not yet needed replacement tyres. He added that Dundy taxi rentals reports to the lifespan of the front tyres on their all electric front wheel Drive Nissan leaf are about 5,000 to 10,000 miles less than their diesel taxis, but more positively the rear tyres last the same amount of time. Typically covering 30 to 36,000 miles before they need to be replaced.
So modern electric vehicles, aren’t actually that much heavier than petrol diesel cars as well, especially with the recent trend towards bigger and heavy SUVs and as battery technology improves, they’re just going to become lighter without compromising the range. And I think a really good illustration of that is the Mercedes-Benz EQ XX which was a concept we covered fairly recently. It’s actually capable of reaching a thousand kilometres on a single battery charge due chiefly to its efficiency. It’s because of how well each of the components works that it’s able to achieve that range and we are going to see that progress throughout the automotive industry. Might take a bit longer, especially if we look at the consumer food chain lower down, slightly more affordable vehicles, sure. But it is coming because if we think about the development of the electric vehicle, and as I said, how far it’s come and how shorter time, as we see that S curve of development ramp up that development is going to keep on speeding up and get better and better over time. So, in reality, electric vehicles are going to get lighter and they’re going to have less impact on the tyres I think.
Phil: That is a good point because we’ve seen this problem. It’s not just EVs, I will point this out. We’ve seen a trend in the automotive industry recently towards SUVs, and we’ve seen a lot of car makers now discontinuing smaller vehicles and launching new SUV models and which we all know an SUV is going to be inherently more heavy than a bog standard Citrix C1 for example. So, it’s great to hear that car makers are looking at making their vehicles lighter, and I’m sure they’re not just doing it because they’re looking at the tyres and the particulate wear from that they’re doing it, as you said to improve the range to improve the efficiency, but it all plays a part.
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Phil: Of course, particulate matter is going to be there no matter what. The fact is even if the latest electric vehicles weigh the same as your bog-standard micro car, they’re still going to be hundreds and thousands of older models out on the used car market. They’re the ones that are going to be needing the tyres going forward. But, as long as tyre manufacturers are aware of the problem then surely, they should be coming up with something at least that is a bit more sustainable and a bit more durable that will help prevent the generation of fine particulate matter.
Tom: And as we see suppliers really change their approach to manufacturing, to design there’s going to be an increased awareness of sustainability and making sure that tyres are as green as they possibly can be. Continental for example, their all season contact tyre actually has a class A rating in terms of rolling resistance, which is the best possible rating for the EU tyre label.
Now four out of the five tyre sizes actually have an Excel identifier so they can carry heavier loads as well. This makes it pretty ideal as a retrofit for electric vehicles because yes, of course, at some point in electric vehicles will need a tyre change. So, when it comes to that point, Continental are saying, okay, swap out for one of these tyres and it should mean you can carry a higher average weight and extend the range of your electric vehicle as well. They pointed to the likes of Hyundai’s Kona electric, Kia Niro, Peugeot E 2008, Opel and Vauxhall Mokka-e as just an example of the kind of vehicles you might see these tyres on. So, for this version of the all season contact the developers are actually able to reduce the amount of material and optimize the rolling resistance of the rubber compound. So, you’re getting more for less effectively, and the measure is reducing the deformation in the contact patch as a result. So, it loses less energy to the road, which is the main cause of rolling resistance. So, it’s all about making that car roll further for longer and effectively wearing away less.
Now Hankook have also released the iON tyre family looking at about May 2022 for that and they’re especially designed for electric vehicles. Because again, they have a reduced rolling resistance and low noise rolling behaviour that will help, especially when it comes to the high talks of electric cars, because of course, EVs can just shoot off from standing effectively. And in saying that, of course these tyres, aren’t just designed for electric cars, because we will see a lot of internal combustion engines on the road for quite some time yet. So, there’s nothing to say you couldn’t take one of these tyres and put them on an ICE vehicle because the low noise rolling behaviour probably only comes into its own with quite electric cars, but it does mean that lower fuel consumption due to improved rolling resistance will help improve the efficiency of the engine because there’s just less resistance. And due to this design for high talk, the mileage of powerful electric cars should also improve.
Phil: Now that’s all well and good coming from the big tyre manufacturers, but we’re seeing at the moment across Europe a cost of living crisis. Energy prices are going up, fuel prices are going up. That means that household budgets are being squeezed. Now, there is an argument to say that more people will take a electric vehicle rather than a petrol or diesel because it’s cheaper for them to charge that it is to fuel. But down the line, like you said, those tyres on that vehicle are going to need replacing at some point and the tyres from the big manufacturers, your Continental, your Hankooks, your Michelins, your Bridgestones other tyre manufacturers that are available, they all command a premium price. They have more durability. They have more work going into them and these companies, they do a lot of research in this and they have to charge what they charge. Not a problem with that, but drivers do seem to want to, should we say skimp when it comes to vehicle maintenance, they want to ensure that they’re getting it done at the best price possible, even at the best of times. So, as we look at costs going forwards there’s going to be those who are pushed into buying budget tyres. The problem you have there is that the budget tyre is probably just an all-rounder. It’s not developed specifically for an EV, it’s not developed specifically for a weight category. It’s developed to be a tyre that goes on a wheel for a car on the road. And I think this is probably the area where we’re going to be getting a lot of tyre particulates coming from. I think the question there is what happens next because you can’t expect everybody to be developing tyres for EVs, obviously budget brands are budget for a reason. The more cost that goes into development of the product means that the cost has to go up and there has to be a fresh hold before a budget becomes a premium.
So instead, do we look at the tyre fitters, the garages, the workshops to be educating the customer, informing them that because they’ve got an electric vehicle they need to be looking at a certain speed rating, weight rating. That they need to be thinking about sustainability of the tyre and do we then see more consumers going with that advice or just saying no, I’m going to go with the cheapest option available and that’s it see you later. So, what we’re doing is if we have the car manufacturers working with the tyre manufacturers to develop more sustainable, more durable, more eco-friendly tyres that produce less particulate matter, are we actually pushing the problem a bit further down the line making it the consumer’s problem to then think about the need for a more sustainable tyre when there’s thousands of budget options out there as well. So realistically, could we even get rid of the particulate matter problem? Is there going to have to be a rule book or licensing or laws for tyres to wear at a certain rate or produce a certain amount of tyre particulate matter?
I mean, it’s great to see the ADAC report which takes across a vast range of tyre manufacturers, a vast range of tyre sizes of construction types, and really analyse them to get the amount of particulate matter per kilometre or per 1000 kilometres it’s really good to have this. Should this be done across more countries? Well, I do think so yes. Should this be done across budget brands again? I think so. And I think there needs to be real education when it comes to tyre labels and when it comes to garages, to workshops, tyre fitters highlighting the issue with the weight of the vehicle and the tyre that you are choosing.
It’s a complicated situation. There’s only so much that tyre manufacturers can do within their remits. I think ultimately the problem then comes down to the consumer and just like with diesel, just like the education about the nitrogen oxides that were being produced, we need to be thinking about educating drivers on particulate matter from other areas of their vehicle. Because otherwise, the problem just won’t go away, it could even get worse.
Tom: So, as we see an increasing adoption of electromobility there is going to have to be a better step change towards the components that will need replacing by consumers. I think you’re absolutely right there Phil, because there’s kind of this blazy attitude almost when it comes to electric vehicles in that, well, there are few moving parts therefore the upkeep is less. That might be so, but it doesn’t mean that there is no upkeep. You will have to replace tyres and you will still have to replace brake discs and pads. And just touching back on that, so if we look back at the work that Dr Euan McTurk produced for the RAC on commission, he did also consider brakes and how they work in an EV versus an internal combustion engine. Now he recognized much as you did Phil, that actually most of the breaking in electric cars is done via regenerative breaking because of course, electric motors can work in reverse converting kinetic energy from the moving vehicle into an electric charge for the battery when slowing down. So, the vehicle doesn’t just slow down via friction from the pads on the brake disc bringing the vehicle to a stop, it’s that the motors are running the opposite direction, recharging the battery and that in effect also adds range to the car. So, you’re seeing even greater efficiency there from slowing down. Something that is going to really come into its own for electric vehicles.
Now Dr McTurk said Dundee taxi rentals says that brake pads on its 11 Nissan leaf taxis have a life span of 80 to a hundred thousand miles. Four times that of their diesel taxis. Discs tend to be changed due to warping rather than where unlikely conventionally fuelled vehicles and last twice as long as those on diesel taxis. We’re talking about pretty big numbers there and particularly for fleet vehicles, like for this taxi company that could represent a pretty sizeable saving. Off the back of Dr McTurk’s report, the RAC did also issue a statement via spokesperson Simon Williams, who said:
George Eustices remarks about EVs not being as green as some may think were very unhelpful and could put some drivers off making the switch to zero emission driving. There are far too many negative myths surrounding electric cars, which need to be busted as soon as possible in order to speed up the electric revolution. We hope these positive real-world experiences will help clear up some of the confusion.
And I think that is such a good point to make. I know in the past I’ve admitted to being ‘a vault head’ and it’s true. I do prefer electric vehicles and I think that is the way the industry’s going. If we see myths, like these continue to perpetrate consumers could well be affected and I think so long as we do have bodies like the RAC and experts like Dr McTurk clearly demonstrating real world advantages of electric vehicles and of any vehicle that has lower emissions than diesel and petrol cars, even if it is an e-fuel I don’t mind. So long as there is some real hard world facts there to say this is the reality, this is where we’re at, this is how it can help the planet then great, I’m all for it. Seeing that data and seeing those facts is what matters. And that’s why we’re reporting on it today I think, because it’s so important that they do receive coverage.
Phil: Exactly education is key. Electrification is the future of automotive. We just need to make sure that people are aware of the changes that electrification is going to bring, not just to the automotive industry, but also to driving full stop. I think we’ll end it there. I think we’ve managed to tread very carefully when it comes to talking about tyres and probably rubber stamped a few ideas as well. I will stop going on with the puns. Tom, thanks for joining me.
Tom: Thanks very much for having me Phil, pleasure as always.
Phil: And thank you for listening as well.
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