The Tires of the Future Are Filled With Lots of Data and Little Air

Let's reinvent the wheel.

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Jul 5 2018, 7:08pm

Image: Shutterstock

The rise of connected vehicles and autonomous driving has accelerated the evolution of technology housed in all manner of auto parts. While they may not be the flashiest part of a car, tires are the latest focus, in part because they have to play catch-up to the new gadgetry found under the hood or on the dashboard of both autonomous and traditional vehicles.

An inevitable evolution is smart tires. Sensors embedded in them can provide users with more data than what today’s tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) offers. These sensors can signal when it’s time to change a tire or report details about uneven and dangerous tire conditions.

The more data, the better, according to industry experts. Matt Ross, the editor of Tire Technology International, said, “A tire that is able to provide real-time information on road conditions, tread wear and depth, pressure and temperature, load detection, and other factors generates the kind of data that is vital to increasingly sophisticated vehicle management systems.”

Last year, electrical engineers at Duke University created a printed sensor that can monitor the tread of car tires in real time, alerting drivers when the rubber hitting the road has grown dangerously thin.

One of the inventors, Aaron Franklin, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke, was so enamored with the concept he founded a company based on the sensors. Tyrata has created nickel-sized sensors that can detect a tire’s tread status and send drivers notifications on their mobile devices.

This is especially important considering “one of the most common causes of car crashes is insufficiently cared-for tires,” Franklin said.

As tire tread wears away over time, the grooves get shallower, making them less effective at directing water away from the tire and elevating the safety risk for drivers, especially in rough weather.

While this sensor tech is not yet available, Franklin said he and his team are deeply invested in smoothing out technical and engineering challenges, including making the cost of the sensor affordable for both car manufacturers and consumers.

In March, Italian tire manufacturer Pirelli unveiled its Cyber Car system, which features tire sensors that can track the status of the tire and transmit data to an electronic control unit inside the car. Information about pressure, internal temperature, and tread depth is integrated into the Cyber Car system, which is then able to work with the car’s onboard computers to adjust the anti-lock braking system and stability control to suit the tire conditions. Cars outfitted with these new smart tires are set to roll out later this year.

Then there’s Goodyear, which unveiled the 3D-printed Eagle 360 Urban, its latest concept tire, at the Geneva International Motor Show in 2017. While sporting the kind of Tron-like look that screams “future,” Goodyear said the Eagle 360 Urban skin will be outfitted with a sensor network that allows it to check on its own status and cull information on the environment, including the road surface. The tire could also activate built-in actuators in real time to change the shape of its surface and tread depending on the current state of the road beneath it.

Perhaps a more futuristic disruption comes from major tire player Bridgestone, which introduced an airless tire tailored for its bicycle division. Bridgestone Cycle plans to go to market with “Air Free Concept” tires that don’t require air to be inflated, and instead use spokes stretching along the tires’ inner sides.

Yuichi Soejima, a PR representative of Bridgestone, said the challenge to create airless tires for vehicles “is difficult because we have to break through the trade-off between lightweight and high durability.”

That’s why airless tires for cars are “still under basic study for passenger vehicles,” said Soejima.

The appeal for drivers may be a tough sell at first, she noted. With these tires, “drivers never have flat tires and need air pressure maintenance. However, drivers might feel uncomfortable when driving with airless tires, because they are hard and do not absorb shocks from the road surface very well compared to pneumatic tires.”

Airless tires may not go mainstream until another market gravitates towards them, said Kevin Rohlwing, VP of training at the Tire Industry Association. Starting with the cycling market could be a savvy way to see if consumers are interested in the product. “That’s what happened with zero-pressure tires before they went mainstream,” he said. (A zero-pressure, or run-flat, tire boasts strong reinforced sidewalls so that when it loses pressure, its walls are substantial enough to hold the tire’s shape.) “They began as a niche thing until car manufacturers jumped on board.”

Rohlwing cautions not to get overly hyped about airless tires. “I think we are a long way from airless tires on passenger cars... When the cost, performance, lifespan, and recyclability are competitive with pneumatic tires, then there’s a chance they could enter the consumer space.”