Perhaps the biggest upcoming innovation in the automobile industry would be the introduction of airless tyres. It could be more disruptive than electric cars or autonomous driving. This article discusses about some key points about how the industry is progressing towards an airless tyre era.
Despite very effective recycling process in place, thousands of tonnes of waste tyre material is discarded annually around the world. Tyres are not ideal for landfills, and often causes significant environment problems. Traditional tyres are either tubed or tubeless by design. Air or nitrogen is filled in the tyres at the right amount of pressure and a very durable sealing ensures that the air does not escape the tyres.
There are numerous problems associated with air filled tyres. Originally automobiles used to have airless tyres. Very soon after the vulcanisation of rubber was invented, the industry started using it for manufacturing sold tyres. Those were rather inefficient though, because the tyres were rigid, heavy and did not offer smooth rides. Pneumatic tyres followed and was widely accepted by the industry. They flexes the area that touches the roads more than the solid tyres and provided better traction. Lot many inventions such as radial tyres followed and many different types of rubber compounds squeezed their way into the manufacturing. However, the basic principles stayed the same, until recently.
Airless tyres have to solve for the traction advantage served by the pneumatic tyres. Different manufacturers are already into the late stages of R&D to get out their airless tyres into the market.
Crocodile is already selling very rigid airless tyres for harsh conditions. They are rather expensive and comes with a wheel rim permanently fixed to the tyres. They are semi solid tyre and are not designed to be used in mainstream vehicles.
Michelin started working on airless tyres as early as in mid 2000’s with their Tyre + Wheel = Tweel technology. They are also targeting constructions equipments and very niche use-cases with the current line of products. In 2019, Michelin has showcased their vision for the future of tyres, and introduced a pilot project called UPTIS (Unique Puncture-proof Tire System), a joint research with General Motors to come up with truly airless, low-energy-loss tyres. They are yet to come up with solutions to reduce vibrations and the aesthetics issues associated with all airless tyres in the market right now. UPTIS is still an extension to their original Tweel project. and we may still want to see how the rim-less tyres fit into the cost aspects of the current tyre market. If they are successful in bringing down the cost, and solve the current problems, Michelin is going to lead the tyre market for the future.
Bridgestone’s Air-Free Tyre concept came into picture as late as 2011. By 2013 they were able to come with the second generation concept Air-Free tyres. In 2017, they have introduced their first commercial Air-Free tyres for bicycles. Their ULTIMATE-EYE technology would be crucial in developing the Air-Free tyres. It helps them tremendously in matching the traction properties of pneumatic tyres.
Hankook joined the league very late, but already have a concept tyre ready for the motor shows. Unlike other companies, Hankook offers a three-piece modular structure for their iFlex Airless Tyre concept. They have a unique recycling strategy as well, which gives them an advantage in the cost control;
The airless tyres are inevitable, because of the huge advantages it provides over traditional pneumatic ones. The biggest would be the ability to drive without flat on your trips. Punctured tyre will become a thing of the past. This gives the automakers a chance to use the spare wheel space for other purposes, such as bigger cargo area or for more battery packs in case of an EV. The recycling process becomes more efficient and leading to less waste material. Airless tyres are also going to be much more durable for heavy duty applications.
Almost all of the tyre manufacturers are walking towards an airless generation of tyres. Some of them though, are flying around motor shows with big balls. Here is a picture of someone from Goodyear with a big rubber ball, betting for a spherical tyre future.