Flat tires seem to be a thing of the past, almost. However, we still occasionally see a driver stranded on the side of the road with an obvious flat tire. Most of us think, under those circumstances, I’m glad it’s not me. Well, technology advances, and flat tires may well become a thing of the past for everyone.
Flat tires are not only a bloody nuisance, there is the cost of replacement if the flat tire occurred at speed and the tire was shredded in the process of slowing down. Also, most of us have seen the car limping along on the shoulder with a flat tire because the car owner decided not to carry a spare, or hadn’t remember to keep the spare inflated. Sometimes it’s difficult not to feel that tires are a car’s weak link but, as I remember my father telling me once: “just remember they are your only contact with the road so always get the best”.
The black rubber air-filled doughnut was first used on vehicles in the 1890s. It was a product designed to be indestructible, and therefore not easy to recycle. There have been many attempts to re-use old tires as everything from road tarmac filler to artificial reefs, but disposing of them is still a major world problem. I recently asked a local contractor, who was bidding on a new driveway for the house where I live, if the asphalt he would use contained ground-up old tires. He said he gave up on that ages ago because pure asphalt was less expensive. So much for re-cycling and conservation.
Finally, however, finally there appears to be a new technology. I read about it a few years ago, but the news suddenly went quiet. I assumed, being a cynic at heart, that some big tire manufacturer had bought up the technology in order to kill it: An all-too-common demise for new technologies. But I was wrong. Airless tires appeared again in a recent article on the BBC website.
On a test track in Luxembourg, a Tesla Model 3 is twisting through tight corners, accelerating rapidly, and doing emergency stops. Standard stuff. What’s remarkable, though, is the car is sitting on four airless tires – made by Goodyear, the US manufacturer. Special plastic spokes support a thin, reinforced rubber tread. The spokes flex and contort as the car goes through its paces. Michael Rachita, Goodyear’s senior program manager for non-pneumatic tires (NPTs), is upfront about the 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.” He wasn’t wrong.
Electric cars and autonomous mobility are changing tire needs. Delivery firms and shuttle services want products that are low-maintenance, puncture-proof, recyclable, and have sensors that map road conditions. Car sharing and ride hailing, rather than ownership, are rising in cities. A car with a flat tire, is a car not making money. Reports suggest Goodyear’s airless tires are close to launch
Goodyear rival, Michelin, has been working with General Motors (GM) on airless tires since 2019. In February there were media reports that Michelin’s Unique Puncture-proof Tire System (Uptis) could debut on a new Chevrolet Bolt electric car being planned by GM, possibly as early as 2024.
Airless tires will, initially at least, carry a premium price. But the ability for regular re-treading and 3D printing could be a game changer. Maybe, some experts speculate, consumers won’t even need to buy tires outright. Instead, they’ll get them free and pay-per-mile, with sensors monitoring usage. Perhaps, thanks to cloud computing and algorithms, connected vehicles could deliver information about where government authorities need to make road repairs or lay grit during freezing weather.
The future maybe closer than we think and technology, once again, will help lead the way.