Yes, we can drive sustainably

Postponed from last year, Challenge Bibendum aptly motored into Rio de Janeiro

A showcase for new technology from Brazil, one of the most important rising economies. A high-level forum for politicians, officials, academics and business figures to discuss the future of road transport. A mini motor show for dozens of prototypes, concept cars and production vehicles using every imaginable alternative fuel and engine type. An opportunity for a young engineering graduate to interest investors in his promising new engine concept. And last but not least, the reinvention of the wheel.

Challenge Bibendum 2010, held earlier this month in Rio de Janeiro, offered all that – and a lot more besides. Organised by the French tyre manufacturer Michelin, Challenge Bibendum is an annual, geographically mobile jamboree devoted to sustainable transport, named after the cheery chap made of tyres who is better known in the UK as Michelin Man, one of the oldest corporate symbols in the world. First held at the company's home base at Clermont-Ferrand in southern France in 1998, it has since descended upon cities in the USA, Germany, China, Japan and now Brazil. The Rio Bibendum was initially due to be held last year; it had to be postponed in recognition of the weakness of the world economy and the then dire state of the automotive sector, but with its emphasis on sustainability it couldn't be more relevant to today's conditions.

The choice of Rio de Janeiro as a host city was well judged. Interest in the so-called Bric nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) is increasing as they account for an expanding share of the world's economic growth, while Brazil, in particular, has a significant motor industry and has probably gone further than any other country in producing and using renewable fuels.

First the motor industry: car manufacturing is mainly carried out by local offshoots of large international groups such as GM, Volkswagen and Fiat, although their products are either heavily modified to suit local tastes and conditions, or in some cases are totally different to those seen in Europe. Troller, a 4x4 manufacturer of local origin, was acquired by Ford in 2007. And the renewable fuels? Sugar cane is making most of the running as a feedstock for renewable fuels in Brazil. Until second-generation biofuels based on non-food sources such as wood waste and algae can be produced on an industrial scale, sugar cane is probably the most widely available feedstock for ethanol, which is in widespread use as a fuel in Brazil, as a significant element – up to 25 per cent – in an ethanol/gasoline blend sold as the standard gasoline in the country, and in near-pure form.

Brazil's growing confidence in these areas was reflected in President Lula da Silva's good-humoured co-option of the Obama campaign slogan – "Yes, we can" – in his opening address, which sent the 3,000 or so participants off to the first round of talks and seminars in a lively mood. There, experts and leaders from around the world discussed the merits of the latest fuels and technologies, exploring, for example, how the need to tackle road safety could be reconciled with efforts to conserve fuel.

Safety measures tend to increase cars' weight but the manufacturers would like to make them lighter in the interests of economy; can something be done with stronger, lighter materials perhaps? What about improvements in active safety that will prevent vehicles colliding with others in the first place? And among all the optimistic talk of new fuels and eco-motoring was a sobering presentation from a senior Shell executive; he put the worldwide share of renewables among today's fuels at about 1 per cent, which might rise to about 10 per cent by 2050. Was that the conservatism of Big Oil speaking, or a corrective to the hype about electric cars and biofuels?

Outside, there was a chance to try future vehicle concepts. Alongside alternative fuel versions of locally produced Fiats and Chevrolets, and dozens of electric scooters and bicycles, the undoubted stars of the show were provided by Peugeot and Audi. Peugeot showed its dramatically styled BB1, a city car capable of accommodating four people in a 2.5 metre-long body. Its vertical windscreen and reverse rake leading door pillars are quite unlike anything else.

Audi's e-tron electric car was, if anything, even more popular with visitors. Technically, it's old hat; Tesla is already selling an electric sports car offering similar performance, while the e-tron is still just a concept car, although something a bit like it may make it on to the market in small numbers in 2012. No matter, its dramatic styling, enhanced by the ghostly white LEDs that lit up its grille and air intakes, stole the show. If nothing else, the e-tron, which also has outstanding acceleration, will at least help to fight the prejudice that electric cars are going to be slow and boring. Of more immediate importance was Citroën's Hypnos concept car, which previewed PSA Peugeot Citroën's diesel hybrid technology that is expected to appear in production cars this year.

Michelin Challenge Bibendum also hosts a traditional static exhibition hall, where organisations can show their technology too. Among the companies displaying this year were the German truck-maker MAN, which has a factory in Brazil, and Air Liquide, the French industrial gases company, which is developing systems for refuelling hydrogen-powered vehicles. Rubbing shoulders with the big players was Oxy-Gen Combustion, an outfit founded by University of Dundee mechanical engineering graduate David Tonery. He has won awards for his work on HCCI (homogeneous charge compression ignition) engine technology, which has been supported so far by a loan from Michelin Development, a body set up by the company to aid employment in areas where it has plants, including Dundee. He is looking for investors to help with the next stage of development, which he hopes will take his ideas on to the road. Several leading automotive companies are working on HCCI, including Mercedes-Benz with its DiesOtto programme. The Oxy-Gen engine relies on a membrane through which air entering the engine passes; the membrane controls the passage of nitrogen, providing the conditions for the spark-free combustion on which HCCI engines rely for most of their efficiency advantages over today's engines.

And the reinvention of the wheel? Michelin has for several years been pursuing its Active Wheel programme, which integrates all of an electric vehicle's drive, suspension and braking components into the wheel itself. This radical concept allows the space taken by a conventional car's engine, suspension and transmission to be used for other purposes, and is claimed to deliver high levels of handling and ride comfort; it was demonstrated at Challenge Bibendum by the Will, a prototype produced by the French coachbuilder Heuliez.

Roll on, if you'll forgive the pun, Michelin Challenge Bibendum 2011 in Berlin.

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