Continental is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2021. Since its foundation in Hanover, Germany on 8 October 1871, the company has been developing pioneering technologies and services for sustainable and connected mobility of people and their goods. From a small factory in Hanover, Continental has developed into one of the global players in the automotive industry, and now operates in 58 countries and markets, and employs around 193 000 people. The Tires business area has 24 production and development locations worldwide, and is one of the leading tyre manufacturers with more than 56 000 employees.
“Continental is the oldest independent tyre manufacturer, and also one of the world’s largest,” says Martin Buday, Managing Director of Continental Tyre South Africa. “Over the past 150 years, we have set standards across the tyre industry with our pioneering spirit and innovative strength. Continental has a long and exceptionally proud heritage of delivering ground-breaking inventions that ensured that tyres became safer and more efficient, and this also defines our approach towards a more sustainable and even more exciting future.”
In its early days, Continental’s product range included a variety of rubber products such as toy balls, rubber mats, roller coverings, rubberised fabrics for balloons and solid tyres for carriages and bicycles. Continental was the first German company to produce pneumatic bicycle tyres in the late 1800s, and in 1898, the production of pneumatic tyres for cars began. The first pneumatics were treadless and had comparatively limited handling characteristics, at least by today’s standards – and so Continental presented the world’s first car tyre with a tread in 1904.
Some of the other significant milestones in Continental’s tyre development include the first tyre with a detachable rim, the patent for the world’s first tubeless tyre and, with the “all-terrain” model, the first dedicated winter tyre. Likewise, the first pneumatic tractor tyre came from Continental. Later came the first rolling resistance-optimized tyre, and the first production tyre to feature a tread made from dandelion rubber.
State-of-the-art tyre testing
Before a new tyre from Continental is launched on the market, it has to successfully pass a wide range of tests. In total, new tyre models cover 25 million test kilometres before the start of production. The enormous effort is justified, because it is the foundation for the quality of Continental tyres for all applications, under even the most extreme conditions. An example of this is the ContiSportContact Vmax, which was launched in 2003 as the only production tyre on the market with a maximum speed rating of 360 km/h.
For the testing of tyres in all conceivable conditions, Continental maintains state-of-the-art tyre testing facilities worldwide. The Contidrom, near Hanover, was the prototype when it opened in 1967, and has become the reference for all Continental tyre test centres around the world.
As early as 1968 the first electronically-controlled driverless car took to the track at the Contidrom. Continental has further developed this technology and now uses it at the test site in Uvalde in Texas, to subject tyres to endurance tests. In 2012 Continental launched the Automated Indoor Braking Analyser (AIBA) at the Contidrom. This facility, which is the only one of its kind in the world, enables the brake performance of tyres on different road surfaces to be tested all year round, regardless of the weather. It is done fully automatically using unmanned vehicles.
In the future tyres will also be tested at Contidrom in a new type of dynamic driving simulator. Thus, professional test drivers will also be carrying out realistic driving scenarios virtually. Having each test cycle completed in the driving simulator instead of on real roadways means fewer test tyres need to be produced. This investment in the new testing technology also contributes to Continental’s extensive sustainability efforts.
Sustainability and Vision 2030
Continental has been committed to greater sustainability in the tyre and automotive industry for decades, with one example being the extensive research in developing tyres with optimized rolling resistance. The ContiEcoContact, which was first presented in 1993, combined environmental benefits and economic aspects with outstanding driving and safety characteristics.
The industry has increasingly been facing the major challenges of finite raw materials and the need to reduce CO2 emissions. Accordingly, Continental has focused on the strategic topics of climate action, low-emission mobility, the circular economy and sustainable supply chains.
In 2013, Continental opened its unique ContiLifeCycle plant in Hanover Stöcken, with an integrated approach to retreading for truck and bus tyres, and a specially developed industrial-scale rubber recycling plant.
“Continental set out its new strategic program for the Tires business area at the end of 2020, called Vision 2030,” Buday says. “This is focused on the systematic customer-centric alignment of the organization and all our business activities. We are targeting further profitable growth and, in a fast-changing market environment, aiming to set ourselves apart from the competition in respect of sustainability.”
In April 2020, Continental created its new Sustainability department, which invests in research and development in the fields of new technologies, alternative materials and environmentally compatible production processes. “Through these efforts, by 2050 we are aiming to gradually transition to 100 percent sustainably produced materials in all of our tyre products,” Buday says.
This process has already started with the industrialisation of the cultivation of dandelion rubber. The Urban Taraxagum bicycle tyre, available on the market since 2019 and produced at Continental’s tyre plant in Korbach, Germany, is the first serial product made of dandelion rubber. In addition to bicycle tyres, Continental is aiming to use Taraxagum for a wide range of other products, such as car and truck tyres, agricultural tyres and technical rubber goods.
The Tires business area is already an industry leader in the efficient and sustainable use of water and energy. Today Continental consumes 55 percent less water and 17 percent less energy than the industry average. By 2030, it aims to save an additional 20 percent in each area.
Furthermore, as of 2022 Continental will use reprocessed polyester obtained from recycled plastic bottles in its tyre production. The new sustainable polyester yarn will be obtained from PET bottles and will be used in the construction of the tyre carcass. In time, this will completely replace conventional polyester. Today, a conventional passenger car tyre consists of around 400 grams of polyester yarn. This means that more than 60 recycled PET bottles can be used for a complete set of vehicle tyres in the future.
Further supporting its drive towards sustainability, Continental is proud to be a founding partner and the official tyre supplier to the innovative Extreme E all-electric racing series. Through its involvement in the series, Continental together with Extreme E are drawing attention to the challenges of climate change occurring worldwide.
It also allows the tyre company to demonstrate its technological capabilities in racing with the specially developed CrossContact off-road tyre which was designed to meet the challenges of Extreme E and some of the toughest conditions imaginable – ranging from the arid desert of Saudi Arabia to the arctic landscapes of Greenland.
South African legacy
Continental Tyre South Africa is 74 years old in 2021 and currently employs around 1 100 people, with its head office and tyre manufacturing plant located in Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth).
Originally founded as a joint venture between General Tire International in the US and the local Williams Hunt Group, the General Tire and Rubber Company South Africa was officially registered in January 1947. The local operation was acquired by Continental AG in 1998 and renamed Continental Tyre South Africa. This created the foundation to become one of SA’s leading tyre manufacturers, supplying original equipment tyres to seven of the largest vehicle manufacturers in the country.
“With a large number of these OEMs exporting vehicles around the world, Continental tyres produced in South Africa form an important part of the global automotive supply chain, and this is something that we are extremely proud of at Continental Tyre SA,” Buday says. “Our local plant has benefitted from investments and upgrades worth almost R1-billion over the past decade, and in 2019 we became the first tyre manufacturer in the country to produce a 19-inch tyre on South African soil, in the form of the General Grabber AT3. This was a significant achievement for the domestic operations and opened the door for further expansion in the crucial OE and replacement tyre business.”
One of the recent, major achievements for the company was the selection of the locally produced General Grabber AT3 all-terrain tyre as OE fitment on the Ford Ranger Raptor, which is assembled at Ford’s Silverton Assembly Plant – both for the domestic market and for export around the world. The Grabber AT3 is also OE fitment on the Isuzu D-Max, and is one of the leading contenders in the replacement market too. Numerous independent tests have proven the Grabber AT3 to be the benchmark in the all-terrain tyre segment, with its 50/50 on-road/off-road design delivering well-balanced performance for all surfaces.
The company’s ongoing investment to reduce the environmental impact of its local operations continues as it strives to lower CO2 emissions, cut back on energy and water consumption and reduce the amount of waste generated. Earlier this year, Continental Tyre SA received the Industrial Corporate Project of the Year award for 2020 from the South African Energy Efficiency Confederation for the heat recovery project implemented at the plant. In 2019 alone this initiative saved 4.5 million kWh of energy and over R1-million. It continues to benefit operating efficiencies and reduce the plant’s environmental impact.