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From orange peel to AI: the strange things that shape tyres

Hiratsuka City, Japan

IT doesn't take a genius to realise that tyres are round and black on the outside. But to design new products from the inside, tyre companies are turning to the brain power that machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) offer.

The goal is to create new tyres that excel at areas usually in conflict with one another, according to Yokohama Rubber Company, Japan's number two tyre producer. Soft tyres tend to offer better grip, for example, but wear out faster.

Goodyear Tire, an American rival, recently unveiled an AI-equipped prototype tyre with sensors that can read road conditions. It envisions tyres that can alter their tread surface to respond to rain or snow.

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Tyre engineers already run computer simulations to assess new molecules and their properties, but Yokohama said that it uses AI to speed up the hunt for "new and unfamiliar materials".

The company is no stranger to unusual compounds. Some of its tyres use a chemical from an unexpectedly juicy source: oranges.

"Orange oil is synthesised from materials extracted from orange peels as raw materials," said Takeshi Fujino, a general manager of sales and marketing for Yokohama. "It has the effect of increasing the grip power by softening the rubber, without increasing the rolling resistance."

This year, Yokohama kicked off a medium-term plan to grow its turnover to 700 billion yen (S$8.6 billion) by 2020, an increase of 8.3 per cent from 2017, a record year for the company.

A key part of the plan is to woo European car makers and have them fit its tyres at their assembly plants. Yokohama recently won such "original equipment" approval for a range of high performance cars from such brands as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. Its Advan Sport V105 tyre, for example, is standard fitment on the BMW M5, a super saloon with 600 horsepower.