Posted by: Jerry Garrett | May 22, 2011

Sustainable Mobility: The Importance of Michelin’s Challenge Bibendum

Historic transportation industry developments display graces the entrance hall at Berlin’s Templehof airport, site of 2011 Challenge Bibendum. (Jerry Garrett Photo)


Michelin’s Challenge Bibendum, for some, might be easy to dismiss as merely a quixotic exercise. Yes, everyone wants to protect the environment, strive for a more sustainable future and encourage innovations to those ends. But does the Challenge, a more-or-less annual convention, do anything more than showcase far-out ideas?

“It is about discovering solutions,” said Michel Rollier, chief executive of Michelin Group. “Starting the dialogues. Anticipating the unforeseen in our business. Twenty, 15, even 10 years ago, no one saw coming the transportation needs of the emerging countries, such China and India. The same with CO2 reduction. Shortages of raw materials. Development of fuel-efficient tires. Now, they are among our industry’s most pressing issues.”

The issues are top-of-mind for not only the industry, but for the governments who regulate it, and for the innovators developing new technologies.

Porsche's Boxster E electric vehicle - one of 280 on display

“In 1998, at our first Challenge Bidendum, which was held at our headquarters in Clermont Ferrand, which is not a large city, there were far fewer people interested in these subjects,” Mr. Rollier said. “Now, here in Berlin at our 11th Challenge Bibendum, there are 280 vehicles on display outside showing advances and innovations in intelligent mobility for the future.”

The Challenge Bibendum was the idea of Eduoard Michelin, the charismatic and visionary leader of the company that his family founded in 1888.

Mr. Bibendum

“He wanted to do something to celebrate the 100th birthday of our famous mascot, the Bibendum man,” said Mr. Rollier, a cousin of Mr. Michelin.

When Eduoard Michelin tragically drowned in a 2006 boating accident, just weeks before that year’s Bibendum gathering, Mr. Rollier took over the reigns of the company. One of his first decisions was to continue the event. “We decided to continue it as a tribute to him,” Mr Rollier said in an interview here. But it was more than a symbolic gesture.

“We are a major actor in the field of all mobility,” Mr. Rollier said. “Which means the future of all mobility is something that matters to us. It says we are a very responsible company, and it is a showcase of what we can do if we all work together.”

Jean-Dominique Senard, Michel Rollier, Didier Miraton, Michelin's leadership team, appear at Challenge Bibendum opening conference.

And though Mr. Rollier himself is now about to retire, and to hand the company’s leadership over for the first time to a non-family member, he said Michelin Group is committed to continued support of the Bibendum Challenge.

“There will be a 12th Bibendum Challenge – and a 13th and beyond, I believe,” he said. “My successor, Jean Dominique Senard, is committed to its importance to Michelin.”

Michelin's Active Wheel

Michelin not only sponsors the conference, which brings together mobility industry leaders, innovators, educators and their students, but also participates in the development of technologies shown here. An example is the Active Wheel, an electric vehicle technology which concentrates all the components needed to propel and manage a vehicle into a wheel. Another, announced at this year’s challenge, is Michelin’s partnerships in the development of fuel cells.

“We must promote vehicle electrification, the optimization of internal combustion engines and the diversification of energy sources,” said Patrick Oliva, Michelin’s Challenge Bibendum chairman. “All this needs to be done simultaneously without wasting any time, with clear objectives, a well-balanced regulatory framework and all this must be coordinated globally.

“We need to define the scenarios according to which these technologies will become economically available, in comparison with the conventional technologies, which will without doubt continue to be used because of the high costs of energy, of raw materials and of de-pollution solutions. This is why we are putting a lot of emphasis on the business case aspect in the various workshops that we are organizing for Berlin.

Iveco Glider - one of a surprisingly large number of "green" truck concepts shown at 2011 Challenge Bibendum.

“Through the 200 participating vehicles and their comparative tests and demonstrations it will be possible to get a glimpse of future changes with the transformation in the transport economy and the new emerging culture of road mobility. The passion for the automobile and the fun aspect of driving are still alive and well.”

The level of enthusiasm for the event here in Berlin this year notwithstanding – the turnout and the support of business and political leaders – the next Challenge Bibendum may not occur until 2013. The undertaking is becoming too large to stage yearly, noted Mr. Rollier.

“It is a big effort for Michelin,” he said. “The number of people involved for us, and the cost, is quite high. But it must continue. It is very important to us.”

Jerry Garrett

May 22, 2011

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