Could a tire be puncture-free, better for the environment, and minimize danger on roads? It sounds almost too good to be true. Back in 2017, General Motors (GM) and Michelin teamed up to execute exactly that, creating an airless tire.
The tire, called 'Unique Puncture-proof Tire System' or Uptis in short, is due to launch in 2024. The aim is for a complete reshuffle of conventional wheels and tires so that they are fully replaced as an assembly unit for passenger cars.
The airless tire has all-round benefits: less raw material and energy are used in their production, the amount of scrapped tires due to punctures or damage will dramatically minimize, wear and tear issues due to over or under inflation will be eliminated, and roads will become safer with fewer blowouts or flat tires.
According to GM, the incredibly large number of yearly scrapped tires currently amasses up to a whopping 200 million. That's a high number of tires to replace.
Why haven't we thought of this sooner?
Michelin has been on the case since 2005 when it unveiled its Tweel system. The Uptis is a production-ready version of the Tweel system.
Furthermore, in 2014, Michelin made light of its new US$ 50 million plant for airless tire production, according to New Atlas. Currently, the Tweel is produced and used for non-passenger vehicles, such as in construction and farm equipment.
For those not navigating such large vehicles, the Uptis will be just the ticket. Michelin further states that these airless tires won't feel any different from our current, very air-filled ones.
What is yet to be revealed is the cost of the tire system, and which type of vehicles it will function with. So far there has only been talk of fleets and shared or rented vehicles using the airless tires.
Bridgestone and Goodyear have both displayed prototype designs for airless tires in the past, but it's Michelin who is pushing the technology forward, at least, for now.
How about others?
When we look at the history of airless tires, we first see the Martin Elastic tire, which was created back in the 1940s and tested on Jeeps and trucks of the time. It was patented in 1943 by James Martin, who claimed the tire didn't use air and instead carried the vehicle's load in tension.
In 1982, Goodyear was granted a patent for an Integral Wheel-Tire, based on "a single-sided wheel rim with asymmetrical deformation behavior." After this, airless tires were often in development, but those presented have only been concepts or prototypes, which is why none of them made it to the automotive market.
Back in 2009, for example, Resilient Technologies debuted an airless setup called the Non-Pneumatic Tire for military purposes at SEMA. The company was said to be developing and testing the units, with a December 2011 deadline for a prototype delivery to military testing officials, but little has been heard since.
Michelin North America presented Vision the "organic tire" as a visionary concept in 2017, saying the materials used would be both bio-sourced and biodegradable and rely on 3D printing.
Bridgestone also presented its version of airless tires for trucks and bicycles in 2019, building on the earlier versions it presented back in 2011 and 2014. What's cool about this one is that it replaces the pressurized air in regular tires with a recycled thermoplastic ‘web’ which can support a tire load of up to 5,000 pounds (2,270 kg). This prototype is still being developed.
Then, there is the Goodyear AERO, which is a futuristic airless tire built to be used on the flying cars of the future. Goodyear introduced it at the 2019 Geneva International Motor Show, saying it can function both as an airless tire and as a propeller.
Why the slow development?
While these designs sound good on paper, there are engineering problems that are waiting to be solved before airless tires can hit the road. For example, debris might become trapped in the spokes of the airless tires, leading them to fail, as well as sand, mud, or snow clogging and potentially unbalancing them.
Such problems explain the rather slow development of airless tires and why they are still at the prototype stage, but they might be overcome with keen engineering solutions. Whether they will take off or not is very much unclear; still, when the benefits they provide are considered, there is a lot to look forward to in 2024, to when Michelin will hopefully unveil its futuristic airless tires.