We probably see on the side of the road or motorway a car requiring a tyre change or struggling along with a flat tyre, at least once every two weeks. This has finally been addressed by a few car and tyre manufacturers with the introduction of the new concept of airless tyres. One such prototype is from the tyre giant Goodyear.
One of the most common causes of tyres being worn out prematurely is not having enough air pressure, due to not checking as regularly as stated by the tyres manufacturer recommendations.
On a remote test track in Luxembourg, US car manufacturer Tesla is undergoing intensive testing on Goodyear’s new airless tyres. These tests consist of cornering at set speed levels, emergency braking, acceleration at variable speeds and all the typical testing a manufacturer would carry out on a standard car tyre being introduced on the market.
What do we currently know about Goodyear’s new airless tyre concept? Apart from the obvious which is not having to worry about air pumps or tyre pressure, the Goodyear airless tyre is see-through and is made up of special plastic spokes, which in turn support a thin reinforced rubber tread. The spokes will then flex and contort according to the road conditions and how the vehicle is driven.
As the testing is progressing, Goodyear’s senior program manager for non-pneumatic tyres (NPTs), Mr Rachita is honest and vocal about the new concept of the airless tyre’s limitations: “There will be noise and some vibration. We’re still learning how to soften the ride. But we think you’ll be surprised at the performance.” The results are very surprising.
With the fast-growing evolution of electric cars and autonomous mobility, the world is now ready for a new outlook on car tyres too. Delivery companies and shuttle services now require low-maintenance, puncture-resistant, recyclable tyres, also fitted with ground sensors to map out the road conditions. The bottom line is, that a car with a flat tyre is not making money for any business.
Mr Rachita also went on to say, “while air-filled tyres will always have their place, a mixture of solutions is needed. As we move into a world where autonomous vehicles are becoming more common and many cities are offering transport-as-a-service strategies, having a maintenance-free tyre is hugely important.”
The testing of each airless tyre lasts on average 24 hours at a time, under different conditions, such as loads, and speed variations. This means thousands of miles are covered under the strictest of conditions. There are of course some minor wear and tear issues, such as some spokes becoming deformed, and some breakages but structurally the wheel continues to perform safely. Mr Rachita went on to add, “it’s a test-learn, test-learn,” he also says. “But we’re at a stage that’s given us a huge amount of confidence. This is the real deal.”
A new era of competition
The main rival to Goodyear, Michelin, has been working closely with General Motors (GM) on an airless tyre concept since 2019. After a series of extreme testing, Michelin has produced the Unique Puncture-proof tyre system (Uptis) and plan to launch it on the new Chevrolet Bolt electric car which will be scheduled to launch in 2024.
Michelin’s Uptis tyres are made of a high-strength resin embedded with a fibreglass and rubber composite material, which creates a mesh-like structure that surrounds an aluminium wheel. This design has 50 patents filed by Michelin. Bearing in mind, that the airless tyre has been around since 2005 but is mainly used for slow-moving vehicles like on farms, etc.
A spokesperson for Michelin then went on to add, “we have 130 years of experience and knowledge in perfecting inflatable structures like pneumatic tyres. Airless technology is very recent. Uptis will be Michelin’s front-runner in the airless tyre revolution for future cars on the road, and it’s designed to be sustainable due to all of the materials of the tyre being recyclable after they’ve been melted down. Like all tyres on the road, the Uptis will need to have re-treads but other than that it would be zero-maintenance.
Another thing to bear in mind is the extra load from heavy batteries in the electric cars will be well suited for the airless structure of the Michelin Uptis.
The biggest contender
Bridgestone, the world’s biggest tyre manufacturer, is focussing on the industrial side of airless tyres, such as farming, mining and construction. They forecast that there’s a big enough demand for customers in this sector who are searching for cost savings and productivity losses due to air tyres failing and having to be replaced or repaired.
In the near future, airless tyres will come at a premium price. But having zero-maintenance and 3-D printing with the ability to easily re-tread, will be a game changer. There’s further speculation that airless tyres will be free and with the built-in sensors monitoring usage, you will be charged only on a pay-as-you-go basis, preferably pay-per-mile is one option under consideration.
Wait patiently for it to be perfected
Airless tyres aren’t far away from being available to all road users and in theory, it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be embracing the new tyre revolution which is much needed after a lifetime of being reliant on air tyres. There are still numerous legal hoops and standards that need to be passed, along with laws having to be applied to make sure the new airless tyres are road legal and totally safe.
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