Six Technologies That Could Reshape the Tire Industry

The American tire industry may be in for a major revolution (no pun intended).

These six innovative new designs could transform the tire industry – fundamentally reshaping the way we drive, how we protect ourselves behind the wheel, and even the legacy we leave on the environment.

1. Tires made from dandelions

This may sound like a hippie’s fever-dream, but it’s very real and pretty exciting. Scientists in Germany have developed a process to create rubber from dandelion roots. That’s right: actual “flower power.” It’s easier and more economical to cultivate and harvest dandelions than it is to obtain rubber from rubber trees. If all goes well, we could see dandelion rubber tires on the road within a few years.

Continental Tire has teamed up with scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology in Munster, Germany toinvestigate high-grade natural dandelion rubber. In a recent interview, Continental’s Nikolai Setzer described the benefits of this alternative to rubber trees: “…rubber extraction from the dandelion root is markedly less affected by weather than rubber obtained from the rubber tree … it holds entirely new potential – especially for cropland that is lying fallow today.”1

If Setzer is right, this technology could help reduce pressure on sensitive natural environments.

2. Self-inflating tires

Self-inflating tires may sound like something out of a Transformers movie, but this technology is already in use on heavy machinery, military vehicles, and even some Hummer models. In very simple terms, here’s how it works: each tire has sensors that measure pressure in the tire. If the pressure is too low, an air source inflates the tire; if it’s too low, a pressure relief valve allows for deflation.

Now let’s take a more in-depth look at how one type of self-inflating tire — CTIS, or Central Tire Inflation System – works. An electronic control unit, or ECU, monitors tire pressure every 10 minutes. The ECU communicates back and forth with the pneumatic control unit, which controls the air source and a specialized wheel valve, allowing for on-demand inflation and deflation. When the vehicle is moving faster, for example, on the freeway, speed sensors communicate with the ECU to ensure that the tires are correctly inflated for higher speeds. There’s also an operator control panel lets the driver manually monitor and correct the tire pressure.2

3. Airless tires

Another exciting advance is the airless tire. Michelin first developed a prototype – the Tweel Airless Tire – back in 2005. The Tweel looks almost like a bicycle wheel, and consists of a solid hub, flexible polyurethane spokes, and an outer band of tread. While you’re driving, the inner spokes absorb force from the road, just like air absorbs force in pneumatic tires. Tweels can be built with different spoke tension, which changes the handling capabilities.

Airless tires offer high lateral strength and use special tread patterns to limit hydroplaning. According Michelin, the Tweel’s tread can last up to three times as long as conventional tires. It’s an environmentally sound choice, as well: you only need to throw away the tread around the circumference – not the whole Tweel – reducing waste rubber.

Airless tires do have their drawbacks, though. Current models produce more friction than standard radial tires. At speeds over 50 miles per hour, the vibration can be quite intense, generating heat and noise. Current versions are probably best suited to applications like wheelchairs, Segways, and military uses (for example, mine detectors).

4. Self-regenerating tires

The self-regenerating tire may sound like it was lifted from another science fiction epic (perhaps the Terminator series) – but it’s already in use on big rig trucks. Michelin’s XDA5 tire doesn’t really “regenerate” its tread, but as the tire wears, a second layer of tread and grooves is exposed from underneath.

According to Michelin, this technology can extend the life of the tire by up to 30%. The XDA5’s tread pattern is designed to improve rigidity; the tires also have a 10% wider-than-normal footprint, which increases stability, optimizes handling, and improves performance.3

5. Tires that change color to announce their level of wear and tear

It’s hard to tell if a tire is worn out just by looking at it – especially when it’s mounted on your car where the tread is mostly hidden. With the Discolor Tyre, you’ll always know when it’s time for a new set of tires. The tire starts out looking like any other black rubber tire. But as the tread wears down to the minimum legal level, a layer of bright-orange rubber hidden inside is revealed. This simple, visual device could have a profound effect on consumer safety. Current tread-wear indicators are anything but foolproof: according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, 13% of all cars on U.S. roads have one or more bald tires.4

This color-coded technology could also embarrass drivers into taking necessary safety action. It’s easy enough to overlook a balding tire that no one can really see. It’s a lot harder to ignore a bright orange tire – especially when it’s easily visible to not only the car’s owner, but also to neighbors, co-workers, policemen … you get the idea.

6. Airless, recyclable tires/wheels that transform themselves

If Korean tire manufacturer Hankook gets its way, today’s rubber tires and metal wheels could be headed for history’s dumpster. Building on a design originally developed by Bridgestone, Hankook’s i-Flex concept tire combines features of wheels and tires into a single airless, recyclable object. Hankook believes that the i-Flex could reduce road noise and fuel consumption while improving shock absorbency. And since the i-Flex is airless, flat tires would be just a distant memory.

Hankook takes things to an even more radical place with their eMembrane concept – a tire that can actually transform itself to respond to driving conditions. For example, at higher speeds, the tire’s tread extends itself to create a larger area of contact with the road and greater traction. At lower speeds, the tread can retract to provide less ground contact, decreasing rolling resistance and saving fuel.5 Pretty amazing, eh?

Tires of the future, we await you

Self-regenerating tires, self-inflating tires, transforming tires, color-coded tires, tweels, and dandelion rubber tires may not arrive overnight. But these technologies have the potential to spark a revolution that could drive down driving costs, keep us safer, lessen our environmental impact, and make our experiences on the road a whole lot more interesting and fun.

1. Fraunhofer and Continental come together when the dandelion rubber meets the road

2. How self-inflating tires work, by Lee Ann Obringer

3. Tires can now self regenerate, by George Delozier

4. Driving on bald tires increases in U.S.

5. Hankook is latest to roll out airless tire concept

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