Michelin has teamed up with General Motors to develop airless tires that will be sold on the next-generation Chevrolet Bolt electric car, which is expected to go on sale within the next few years, a Michelin executive said.
This could mark the decline of more than 130 years of tire tradition, but also the end of one of the most annoying aspects of car ownership: keeping air in the tires.
“We wanted to bring the next generation of the Chevrolet Bolt with airless tires,” Alexis Garcin, president of Michelin North America said in an interview with CNN Business, “and that will happen now in the next three to five years.”
GM hasn’t confirmed that it’s working on a new car called the Chevrolet Bolt, the same name as the automaker’s current EV, but GM says it’s working on a wide range of electric vehicles including affordable ones similar to the Bolt in price.
Michelin and GM have tested airless tires on the current-generation Bolt, something the company has opened up about.
It is ironic that the first airless tires for passenger cars probably came from the French tire maker whose famous mascot – Bibendum, better known as the Michelin Man – was made of air-filled tires.
The company made its name in the late 1800s with the advancement of pneumatic (air-filled) tires for bicycles and was among the first to manufacture and market them for use in automobiles. In 1899, the first car to set a world speed record using pneumatic tires, a rocket-shaped electric car traveling 66 miles per hour, did so at Michelins.
The company continues to produce pneumatic tires which are used in other speed record attempts by companies such as Bugatti.
The disadvantages of filling tires with compressed air are obvious. Air is a gas that can leak, and tires are prone to punctures.
Tire makers have spent more than a century finding ways to minimize puncture and keep air in these circular rubber tubes, but it still happens with some regularity.
Michelin’s airless tire design relies on flexible ribs to provide a kind of spring action, roughly the same as air in pneumatic tires.
If the tread is punctured, it makes no difference because the tire does not hold in the air. In fact, the side of the airless tire is completely exposed.
Of course, there is a reason why airless tires have not been used on passenger cars for more than a century. Air does have its advantages. For one thing, compressed air allows tires to be adapted for specific uses.
For example, drivers who use four-wheel drive trucks off-road can reduce air pressure in the tires, which allows the tires to flatten slightly, creating a larger tread area on loose sand or dirt. The tires can then be re-inflated when the truck is back on the asphalt.
Also, car companies have been engineering cars and their suspension systems for a century with the idea that vehicles would use air-inflated tires. Airless tires can look different, presenting a challenge to car engineers.
Michelin tries to imitate as closely as possible the behavior of air-filled tires. Given the vastly different structure of these tires compared to pneumatic tires, it would be difficult to replicate that feel, said Ryan Pszczolkowski, who oversees tire testing at Consumer Reports.
This is especially challenging given that pneumatic tires come in many variations and differ in feel and behavior from one another.
“I mean, we really reinvented the wheel here,” he said.
Michelin already sells an airless tire, called the X Tweel, for use on lawnmowers and similar off-road equipment such as ATVs. One X Tweel for the lawnmower — including the integrated tires and wheels instead of the separate tires and wheels — can cost upwards of $600, according to the product’s website.
But Michelin claims that these tires last longer than pneumatic tires and offer a more comfortable ride because they are less wobbly.
But passenger car drivers will be more picky than lawn mower drivers about things like ride, handling, and noise. Cars operate at much higher speeds and take corners much faster than off-road engines.
Michelin engineers had to emulate the feel and performance of pneumatic tires under these more demanding everyday uses.
For this reason, the Michelin version of the passenger car developed by the name Uptis has a different construction even though it looks almost the same as the X Tweel.
The center rib holding it in place is made of rubber reinforced with resin-injected fiberglass, while the X Tweel rib is made with polyurethane, for example.
Garcin also envisions tires incorporating other technological advances. It will be completely recyclable and renewable — it will be easy to vulcanize and reuse — and it will have real-time connectivity so drivers can easily monitor tread wear.
Of course, consumer acceptance of airless tires will also depend on their cost. But its introduction of the next-generation Bolt, a car that starts at $32,000, seems to suggest that airless tires won’t be limited to the high-end market.
Beyond these first electric cars, the wide variety of tire sizes and types already on the market will create challenges of their own, said Pszczolkowski, as Michelin seeks to make airless tires for more vehicles.
“It seems like every time a new vehicle comes out, a new tire size is created,” he said. “This is really annoying.”
Ultimately, says Pszczolkowski, the success of airless tires really depends on how much trouble and cost consumers are willing to spend to avoid flat tires.
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