“Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve heard all that before.” — Casanova Frankenstein, Mystery Men
If you’ve been following automotive news at all for the last couple of decades, you’ll remember that airless tires (or “tweels”, a portmanteau of tire+wheel) have been on the verge of coming to market for 20 years. The benefits of such a thing are obvious: no need to worry about low tire pressures, an errant roofing nail making a hole in your sidewall, or any of that. Just put the airless tire on your car, and drive it until the treat wears off, and even then, they might be able to put new tread on!
Lots of time, headaches, and money would be saved.
The problem is that by now we’re all feeling a bit like Casanova Frankenstein in the 2000 cult classic comedy movie Mystery Men. Mr. Furious, Phoenix Dark … Dirk, Dirk Steele, or whatever he’s called (his real name is “Roy”) believes that uncontrolled rage is his superpower, but keeps getting his butt kicked by the baddies. In the midst of the movie’s last fight, he finally finds his real rage and announces the danger of this to the movie’s bad guy, who is rather dismissive, because he’s heard all of this bluster before.
Unfortunately for Casanova, this time Ben Stiller’s character really did get angry enough to call it a superpower, kicks his butt while insulting him, throws him into the doomsday device, and prevents him from psycho-frack-ulating Champion City.
Michelin’s Rage Against Non-Pneumatic Tires Has Been Slowly Building
A recent piece at New Atlas has me wondering whether the Michelin Man is really going to pull it off this time.
First off, the company hasn’t made zero progress with airless tires over the last couple of decades. After developing airless tires a bit, the big problem that they ran into was getting them to work well at higher speeds. Fortunately, there are a lot of vehicles out there that just don’t go very fast. Military vehicles, construction equipment, and even some off-road applications don’t require a vehicle to be capable of going much faster than walking, let alone going highway speeds. In those niches of the tire market, Michelin was able to make a few bucks and save people a lot of trouble.
Now, the military is even considering adopting them for vehicles, as they’d be a natural fit for harsh environments and/or conflicts that shred normal tires and leave vehicles stranded. Even fairly badly damaged, the tweels should be able to go hundreds of miles before there’s a need to stop and replace them.
And Now, They’re Apparently Ready To Kick Butt
After announcing a partnership with GM last year, Michelin recently started giving media test drives of vehicles with the new airless tires. I requested to do this myself, and will let readers know when we hear something back from Michelin. In the meantime, New Atlas’ experience with them is what we’ll have to go by.
Ultimately, their experience was uneventful and even boring. But that’s actually a good thing!
Michelin let them drive a Mini Electric equipped with the new Michelin Uptis airless tires, and the experience was just like driving any other vehicle. It didn’t feel better or worse, just basically the same. And, in reality, that’s what we really want from airless tires — something that acts like a tire but doesn’t give us all of the headaches.
And really, this normalcy is more important than you’d think at first. Tires currently have air in them because they need to create a contact patch with the pavement. A perfect, rigid circle would only barely touch the ground beneath it, and wouldn’t allow the treads to really grip the road. In the case of something like a train, with its metal wheels and tracks, this lack of friction is a feature that saves a lot of energy. For a car driving on pavement, this would be a very, very bad thing.
And ultimately, that’s what was so challenging for Michelin. They needed something tough, but flexible, and it turns out that reinventing the wheel (by building a tire into it and making a Tweel) wasn’t an easy task.
These tires are supposed to start showing up on GM vehicles starting in 2024.
The obvious advantage is the reduction of tire waste.
For one, Michelin says tweels will last three times longer than normal tires, even when nothing goes wrong for the life of the tire. From other sources, it looks like treadlife will be better because they can get away with deeper tread patterns than they can with pneumatic tires. There also seems to be less complex flexing going on every time a tweel rotates, which also may contribute to extended life. I don’t know if these highway-oriented tweels will be able to be retreaded, but if so, that would be a huge contributor to life.
Lasting three times longer means tire waste would be reduced by 66%.
Another advantage is the much lower rate of premature failures. Michelin told New Atlas that 200 million tires end up in landfills annually because they get unrepairable holes or tears in them. This leads to a lot of tire waste that can simply be eliminated by tweels. That’s no small feat.
Premature wear due to low air pressures is also a common problem that tweels would eliminate. Low tires put more of the car’s weight on the outer edges of the tread, wearing that tread down while leaving the center of the tire relatively unscathed. A tweel would always keep even tread contact, so this kind of premature wear would also be eliminated.
One final thing that Michelin has been touting in press releases is that the Uptis tweel will be recyclable. I haven’t been able to find details about what compounds it’s made of or why it’s more recyclable than the average tire, but it seems reasonable that something like a tweel wouldn’t need to be as flexible as normal tires. After all, they only really need to flex toward the center during normal rotations, and don’t have to keep a more complex toroidal shape to hold air in. This probably opens up the ability to use different compounds that are easier to recycle at the end of a tweel’s serviceable life.
The sooner we can get these on the road, the better.
Featured image by Michelin.
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