(Colmar-Berg) Indestructible, maintenance-free, airless tires could soon be fitted to commercial vehicles before revolutionizing automobiles, according to promises from Goodyear, Michelin or Bridgestone.
At the Goodyear test circuit in Luxembourg, journalists put a Tesla equipped with flat tires to the test on Tuesday.
This thin layer of rubber adhered to black spokes must achieve a physical feat: drive for thousands of kilometers distributing the masses of a car with the same efficiency as compressed air.
The technical bet is almost fulfilled: the rubber and plastic frame does not collapse in the tight corners of the racing circuit, and the powerful electric car rolls smoothly. But it slips more than conventional tires and howls a lot more while driving.
These tires have been tested for 120,000 kilometers, up to 160 km/h, in both heat and snow, without significant damage, says Michael Rachita, director of “non-pneumatic tires” projects at Goodyear, near the track. A second generation is being designed, “lighter, designed to offer less rolling resistance and less noise”.
The first manufacturer to reinvent the wheel could pack a punch: These tires would tackle the roughest roads, without pressure monitoring. We could use a single structure for the life of a car, recycle it, and save material by “retreading” a thinner layer of rubber, as is already done on heavy-duty vehicles.
Michelin has established itself as a forerunner with the “Tweel”, an airless model installed on industrial mowers and machinery used on demolition sites. But the demands of a road car – high-speed endurance, longevity, comfort, silence, cost – seemed insurmountable.
new business model
The French equipment manufacturer has designed a model with US automaker General Motors, the “Uptis”, which it has tested at 200 km/h and shown at auto shows.
The Bibendum promises “announcements” from the end of 2022 for car fleets. His teams are working in particular on a cocktail of fiberglass and resin that should adhere the rubber to the honeycomb structure of the new tire.
“We will continue for several decades to have tires that wrap air,” estimated however the general director of Michelin, Florent Menegaux.
Goodyear, which applied for the first patent on this technology in 1982, has been putting its foot on the gas ever since.
The Ohio manufacturer promises a “completely durable and maintenance-free” tire by 2030, counting in particular on the development of autonomous vehicles. One version is already equipping shuttles and small delivery robots on university campuses.
Bridgestone is also targeting commercialization “over the next five to 10 years”, after trials in utility fleets. According to the Japanese manufacturer, this solution will allow them to “minimize lost time” due to “tyre-related incidents”.
Other manufacturers remain skeptical. “The airless tire poses problems in terms of suspension and noise. It’s not a viable solution and I don’t expect it to become one,” Continental manager Gerrit Bolz told a tire conference in 2017.
“Sooner or later, airless tires will take over,” says researcher Ulf Sandberg of the Swedish Transport Research Institute, which is preparing its own EU-funded truck concept. “In particular, they could improve rolling resistance and increase the range of electric vehicles, something very valuable for manufacturers. »
If the race for airless is not unbridled, it is also because the creation of puncture-proof tires will force manufacturers to transform their factories, as well as their business model, according to Sandberg.
“Airless tires are part of the way we think about our business modeland our manufacturing processes,” said Xavier Fraipont, vice president of product development for Europe (EMEA) at Goodyear. Like Michelin, the manufacturer is considering tire subscription models, billed on delivery or per kilometer.
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