Could flat tyres soon become outdated? A person taking out a jockey to change the tyre by the side of the road or a car wobbling along on a nearly flat tyre is nevertheless a regular sight.
Replacing tyres that have prematurely worn-out is also an expensive affair, due to the negligence of the drivers who don’t check the pressure on a regular basis.
Sometimes it can be challenging not to think of tyres as a car’s weak point. But now things are about to change for the better.
Are we about to see the end of the unbreakable, difficult-to-recycle black rubber air-filled doughnut that was by us since the 1890s?
Airless tyres are here to stay
A Tesla Model 3 is making emergency stops, accelerating quickly, and turning through tight curves on a test track in Luxembourg. Reason – the car is resting on four airless tyres manufactured by US-based company Goodyear.
A thin, strengthened rubber tread is supported by special plastic spokes. As the car moves swiftly, the spokes flex and twist.
Michael Rachita, Goodyear’s senior program manager for non-pneumatic tyres (NPTs), shared his thoughts about the limitations of airless tyres as well. He said, “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.”
Autonomous mobility and electric cars are changing tyre requirements. Products that are low-maintenance, puncture-proof, recyclable, and have sensors that map road conditions are desired by shuttle services and delivery companies.
Carpooling is certainly on a rise in the cities as well. A car with a flat tyre is something that any driver despises.
“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,” Rachita said.
Sometimes the tyres are tested for 24 hours on a trot at Goodyear’s labs under different speeds and loads. Despite the fact that some spokes deform and some even break, the structures are well intact and safely continue to perform.
“It’s test-learn, test-learn. But we’re at a stage that’s given us a huge amount of confidence. This is the real deal,” an elated Rachita added.
Goodyear Vs Michelin
Since 2019, Michelin, a competitor of Goodyear, has been collaborating with GM on airless tyres. According to media reports from February, GM’s upcoming Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle could have Michelin’s Unique Puncture-proof Tyre System (Uptis) as early as 2024.
Uptis tyres are made up of high-strength resin embedded with composite rubber and fibreglass which helps in creating a mesh structure that shrouds an aluminium wheel.
Cyrille Roget, a scientific and innovation expert at the French tyre maker, neither confirmed nor denied the Bolt reports, but stated that Michelin will have more to say later this year.
When it comes to airless wheels, Michelin has been a market leader. Since 2005, their tyre-wheel (Tweel) has been used on slow-moving vehicles.
Roget believes that using airless tyres for road vehicles is a completely different ballgame.
He said, “We have 130 years of experience and knowledge in perfecting inflatable structures like pneumatic tyres. Airless technology is very recent.”
Having a multi-year plan, Uptis wants to create a tyre that is connected, airless, 3D-printed and made up of materials that can be melted and re-used.
According to Michelin, apart from occasional re-treads, it would be zero maintenance. Airless tyres will be well fit for electric vehicles which usually have heavy battery weight. Rachita said, “You can carry more load with a more compliant feel than in an air tyre.”
Conversely, airless tyres have a larger area of contact with the road, which increases drag. The battery life and range are affected because the rolling resistance requires more energy to propel the tyres forward. And let’s not forget the noise that comes along when the rubber hits the road.
Matt Ross, editor-in-chief of Tire Technology International, said, “With engine sound removed on an electric car, tyres become the dominant source of the noise.”
In addition, the rigidity of plastic spokes transmits more vibration through the suspension. Drivers long used to the response and performance of air tyres could take some convincing, he feels.
Additionally, the stiffness of plastic spokes causes the suspension to transmit more vibration.
Matt also feels that the drivers who are used to driving air tyre vehicles might not get easily convinced to change over to vehicles using airless tyres.
What regulators decide, however, is more significant than how consumers perceive things. Governments will expect strict safety inspections and uniformity in the rules. In addition, tyre manufacturers would need to make significant investments in new manufacturing facilities and supply chains, which is sure to take many years.
Tyre makers believe that the sectors that adopt this one earlier will push the technology to move forward.
In an interview with BBC, Klaus Kraus, head of European research and development at Hankook, said, “Non-pneumatic tyres (NPTs) are of particular interest to sectors like the military, disaster response, security vehicles, and specialist machinery.”
In January, the South Korean company unveiled the new version of its i-Flex NPT.
The company said, “Smaller than a conventional tyre, a honeycomb of interlocking polyurethane spokes is a breakthrough in coping with lateral and horizontal stresses.”
Bridgestone, the world’s largest tyre maker, is interested in industrial applications in farming, mining and construction, where demand could be high from customers that see a costly loss of productivity when tyres fail.
Initially, the airless tyres would carry a premium price, but it is believed that the ability for regular re-treading and 3D printing could be the real deal.
Some experts suspect that consumers won’t even be required to buy tyres outright. Rather they would get it free and pay-per-mile, with sensors monitoring usage.
Sosia Causeret Josten, an expert at Goodyear’s Sightline Tyre Intelligence division, says, “It’s an illustration of where the technology is taking the tyre of the future.”
Tyres have a lot of potential because they are a vehicle’s only point of contact with the road.
Just in case the government authorities are to be informed about the need for road repairs during the days of harsh weather, the connected vehicle could deliver the necessary information thanks to cloud computing and algorithms.
“If the anti-lock braking system (ABS) can tell that the vehicle is driving on half-worn summer tyres, it can react quicker. This advantage can play an important role in an autonomous future, where the vehicle has to react itself,” Sosia added.
It is not necessary for all of them to be airless tyres and not all factories are buying that NPTs are the future.
Denise Sperl, a director of car tyre research and development at Germany’s Continental, said, “To this day, we believe that pneumatic tyres are the best choice for most vehicles. Tyres will always need to simultaneously meet multiple requirements for safety, comfort, performance and sustainability.”
A self-inflating system where pumps and sensors in the wheel keep the pressure at optimum levels is being developed by Continental.
The company is ready to go “green” as they are looking to use polyester derived from recycled plastic bottles to be used in its tyres.
Both Continental and its competitor Goodyear are also performing research on the dandelion flower from which latex is produced that is often compared to rubber trees.
Sperl stated that sustainable alternatives have their own limitations because of their limited availability. Air tyres have been there for quite some time now for a reason which is to do the best job. “We remain convinced of this,” she concluded.
Global airless tyres market to be driven at a CAGR of 5%
Expert Market Research recently came up with a report titled ‘Global Airless Tyres Market Report and Forecast 2021-2026’.
The report provided an in-depth analysis of various aspects that included the global airless tyres market assessing the market based on its segments like sales, type, channel, material, vehicle type, and major regions like Asia Pacific, Europe, North America, Middle East and Africa and Latin America.
The report not only kept track of the latest trends in the industry but also studied their impact on the overall market. It also evaluated the dynamics of the market which also covered the price indicators and key demand.
Forecast CAGR (2021-2026): 5%
The demand for maintenance-free tyres is one of the major reasons behind the growth of the global airless tyre market. Many sectors like defence, construction, and agricultural vehicles have a higher requirement.
They are in high demand, thanks to their good fuel efficiency and load-bearing capability which will eventually lead to market growth.
Emission of less carbon, no requirement for spare tyres, and use of recyclable materials are some of the key aspects why experts are projecting a bring future for the airless tyre market across the globe in the coming years.