Let’s talk about tires. As the only part of our cars that actually touch the road they’re obviously incredibly important, but few people consider them much more than boring round black things. That’s not entirely surprising. While most car companies will wax rhapsodic over their latest and greatest bits of technology, their colleagues on the tire side of things tend to be much more inscrutable. Here’s a fact that surprised me recently: did you know that even now in the 21st century, between 10 and 30 percent of the rubber in the tires you can buy still comes from trees? Although tires also contain synthetic rubber in them, the complex long polymers formed by Mother Nature provide much better wear characteristics
The fact that all of our vehicles are dependent upon latex tapped from trees is not ideal. The rubber tree (hevea brasiliensis to its friends) only really grows in certain locales near the equator, and that means supplies are under threat from climate change and also sometimes hostage to unstable governments. For the past few years, Continental has been looking for alternatives, and the company believes it’s found one in an unlikely source: the Russian dandelion.
"We’ve been looking into the idea for at least the last five years," explained Dr. Peter Zmolek, one of Continental’s engineers working on the project. "Fairly recently we started going into it with a more serious approach—building tires—and more recently we’ve committed to investment in a facility that would allow us to start making it on a more productive scale." Continental wanted to find a material that was close enough to natural rubber trees that it would allow them to just drop the material into their tire production process, which meant finding a plant that made the right kind of latex.