Challenge Bibendum takes green ideas and makes them road-worthy

A global gathering of manufacturers, inventors and innovators, Germany's Challenge Bibendum unites them in the cause of sustainable mobility.

Michelin's innovative tyres are made with a unique compound that immediately plugs holes in the tread
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When a Renault Fluence wins a rally, there are bound to be exceptional circumstances. In the case of the Intercity Rally at the 11th Michelin Challenge Bibendum last month, the underwhelming mid-size saloon not only sealed an overall win, but also carried away an additional five trophies.

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One of the centrepieces of the Challenge Bibendum - a global gathering of manufacturers, inventors and innovators under the banner of sustainability and mobility - the Intercity Rally covered a distance of 300km through the towns and countryside around Berlin and featured passenger cars that were measured on a number of factors, including well-to-wheel CO2 emissions. The electric Fluence ZE also comprehensively outperformed the Tesla supercar in manoeuvrability and was most energy-efficient overall.

Rather than being dull and worthy, as so many eco-events can be, the Challenge Bibendum attempts to demonstrate real solutions to sustainability issues. Taking place this year at Berlin's Tempelhof airport, the Segways, electric personal transporters, driverless buses, electric farm machinery and sustainable supercars made for a bizarre spectacle within this historic urban space.

While the runways of Tempelhof would have roared to the sound of airlines bringing much-needed supplies during the Berlin Airlift of the Cold War, they were eerily silent during the Bibendum as at least 280 green vehicles flexed their electric muscles.

"What we see here is that the technology for sustainable mobility already exists, and the challenge now is to make it part of everyday motoring," said Michel Rollier, managing general partner of the Michelin Group, the event's organiser, in his opening address. "Eleven years ago, at the first Challenge Bibendum, sustainable motoring was not a priority. However, it has since become the burning issue of our time and, over the years, innovators have addressed the challenges."

Before the event, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "The crucial question today is to know what sustainable mobility should look like. Originally faster and faster, then safer and safer and now cleaner and cleaner, this is the evolutionary path of production in the mobility sector."

More than strong words by global figures, Challenge Bibendum is about the vehicles in their geeky and futuristic glory. For example, produced by French former Formula One constructor Ligier, the Vipa was highly visible at Tempelhof. Using something akin to a missile guidance system, this electric driverless bus uses cameras and GPS to map routes and analyse images. It is expected to be introduced into French car parks and office complexes this year.

Elsewhere, the Italian Tazzari Zero is branded as the "world's first urban sports vehicle". Good looking, sporty and green, this electric vehicle has been made entirely out of recyclable materials and even its lithium batteries can be recycled whenever they are replaced.

Exceptionally ugly but outstandingly sustainable, the Twike is billed as a "human-electric hybrid vehicle". Resembling a bubble car, it can carry two passengers and their shopping through a combination of battery and old-fashioned pedal power, with the battery fully charged from a home plug in less than two hours.

And then the Venturi Voltage electric sports car results from a partnership between Venturi and Michelin. It works through an advanced system of in-wheel electric motors. It offers an impressive capability of 320km on one charge, which takes it well beyond even the latest generation of electric cars.

Michelin, meanwhile, was showing off its own innovations, which, according to Prashant Prabhu, Michelin's president for Africa, India and the Middle East, would have particular importance for our region. The company is in the process of bringing to its production line one of the world's first self-repairing tyres, which can drive over nails without losing any pressure whatsoever.

What makes these energy-saving, self-repairing tyres different from ordinary run-flat tyres is that they are made with a unique rubber compound that immediately plugs holes in the tread.

In addition, they continue to deliver all the usual functions of a fully functional tyre, such as safety, total mileage and fuel efficiency. "Much of the damage done to tyres across the Middle East comes from the massive amount of debris on our roads," said Prabhu.

"Technology like this will have a direct impact on us in the Middle East - and it will add to sustainability because tyres will have to be replaced less often."

He did note, however, that far too little Middle Eastern innovation was on show in Berlin. "I was not satisfied with the participation by the Middle East," he said. "We want more representation in the future.

"It's true that the cost of fuel is low in the Gulf, and this affects all the arguments we make about efficiency. But the impact on the environment from cheap fuel is exactly the same as it is from expensive fuel and our challenge is to show that the environment is just as important for all countries and regions.

"We could quickly become the bad boys of the world, as our populations are low and we produce high CO2 per capita."

In spite of the Middle East's poor show, there were plenty of innovations that we may begin to see here. However, it is highly unlikely that we will witness the Renault Fluence taking part in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in years to come.