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Columbia Business Monthly


By David Dykes

BMW and Michelin—two companies whose economic and civic importance to the Upstate can’t be ignored—are on the verge of dramatic change. Just how widespread the local impact will be isn’t known, but during the international sustainable and connected mobility summit Movin’On in Montreal in June, the two companies made it clear that it’s time to move from ambition to action.

Designed by Michelin, in partnership with the international business conference C2, the summit convened an estimated 5,000 people from more than 67 countries for forward-looking talks, collaborative activities, and action-focused creative sessions.

Ursula Mathar, BMW Group’s vice president of sustainability and environmental protection, said production changes are coming on a global scale. She pointed out that BMW has worked on producing combustion-engine cars on the same assembly line as plug-in hybrids or pure-electric cars. 

“We won’t have one production plant only for electric cars and the other one only for combustion-engine cars,” Mathar said. “We will make it flexible.”  

However, Mathar also noted that changes will be “step-by-step,” and she doesn’t know the timing of major production changes that could impact Spartanburg, where BMW employs more than 11,000 people and produces the X3, X5, and X7 sports activity vehicles and the X4 and X6 sports activity coupes. 

In 2015, BMW said its X5 xDrive40e, the company’s first plug-in hybrid sports activity vehicle, was being produced in Spartanburg. Last year, BMW announced the next version of the X5 plug-in hybrid would go into production in Spartanburg in August and the all-new X3 plug-in hybrid would begin production in December.

Meanwhile, in March of this year, BMW officials said they plan to produce 12 new all-electric cars by 2025, including five by 2021. Add in the company’s rapidly growing range of plug-in hybrids and BMW’s portfolio will include at least 25 electrified models by 2025.

The German auto giant isn’t working alone. The BMW Group also has joined forces with Daimler AG to advance development of the next generation of technologies needed for autonomous driving. 

At the end of February, the two companies signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly develop the technologies that are vital for future mobility. Initially, the focus will be on advancing the development of next-generation technologies for driver assistance systems, automated driving on highways, and parking features.

The two companies are investing more than one billion euros to develop and more closely intermesh their offerings for car-sharing, ride-hailing, parking, charging, and multimodal transport.

BMW has invested more than $10 billion in its 1,150-acre, 7-million-square-foot South Carolina campus, which generates its own power, and Mathar, who has visited the Spartanburg plant, said company officials are constantly looking for ways to lessen the environmental impact while maintaining BMW’s goals of quality and consistency. Officials say that from 2006 to 2018, the company’s South Carolina plant reduced water consumption 44%, energy consumption 61%, industrial wastewater 58%, and waste disposed in a landfill 85% per vehicle shipped.

Asked what should have been done differently, Mathar said BMW should have moved faster on decisions regarding decarbonization and a circular economy, an economic system aimed at minimizing waste and making the most of resources.

Also in Montreal, Michelin and General Motors presented a new generation of airless wheel technology for passenger vehicles: the Michelin Uptis Prototype (or “Unique Punctureproof Tire System”). Because Uptis is airless, the breakthrough wheel assembly eliminates the dangerous risk of flat tires and blowouts, Michelin officials say. 

Michelin, whose North American operations are headquartered in Greenville, and GM announced a joint research agreement under which the companies intend to validate the Uptis prototype with the goal of introducing it to passenger models as early as 2024. The two companies are testing the Uptis prototype, beginning with vehicles like the Chevrolet Bolt EV. Later this year, the firms will initiate real-world testing of Uptis on a test fleet of Bolt EV vehicles in Michigan. 

At the summit, Eric Vinesse, Group Michelin’s executive vice president of research and development, told reporters motorists in China have a tire puncture every six months, on average. In North America, it’s once every two to three years, and in Europe it’s once every  four or five years. That makes Asia an attractive initial production market for the new tire, Vinesse noted. 

The cost to consumers, while not set, will be “very consistent with the value that it delivers,” Vinesse said. It isn’t known when Michelin’s U.S. plants could be involved in production for domestic markets.

The Uptis Prototype represents a major advancement toward achieving Michelin’s VISION concept, which was presented at the Movin’On Summit in 2017 as an illustration of Michelin’s strategy for research and development in sustainable mobility. The VISION concept introduced four main pillars of innovation: airless, connected, 3D-printed, and 100% sustainable (entirely renewable or biosourced materials).  

“Uptis demonstrates that Michelin’s vision for a future of sustainable mobility is clearly an achievable dream,” Florent Menegaux, chief executive officer for Michelin Group, said in a statement. “Through work with strategic partners like GM, who share our ambitions for transforming mobility, we can seize the future today.”  

“Uptis is an ideal fit for propelling the automotive industry into the future and a great example of how our customers benefit when we collaborate and innovate with our supplier partners,” said Steve Kiefer, GM’s senior vice president, global purchasing and supply chain.

Uptis features ground-breaking improvements in architecture and composite materials, which enable Uptis to bear the car’s weight at road-going speeds, Michelin officials said. 

The officials said the innovations combine to eliminate compressed air to support the vehicle’s load, and result in extraordinary environmental savings: approximately 200 million tires worldwide are scrapped prematurely every year as a result of punctures, damage from road hazards, or improper air pressure that causes uneven wear. 

Disclosure: Michelin paid the writer’s expenses to attend Movin’On.