A flat tyre is something that nobody ever wants, and there’s never a good time to get one is there?
Well, the good news is that flat tyres may become a thing of the past within the next decade, with all the world’s major tyre manufacturers now developing airless tyre technology.
The idea of airless tyres has been around for a surprisingly long time. Back in 1938, American inventor J V Martin invented a tyre composed of rubber and hickory with spokes.
But the concept went nowhere until 2005, when Michelin invented the “Tweel”, an integrated tyre and wheel that’s seen limited use on low speed and off-road vehicles. While airless tyre designs from different manufacturers all look a little different, they all rely on the same design concept – no air chamber, but a spoked or honeycomb structure connecting the rim to the centre.
It’s that central structure that gives the tyre the spring and flexibility that’s normally provided by air.
There are several advantages to the airless tyre, the most obvious being that they don’t get punctures, so no more getting out on the side of the road in the rain when you’re dressed for business to change a flat tyre.
For fleet owners there’s a time saving, too, because tyre failures can result in a lot of down time while those tyres are replaced. Time is money, right?
Dangerous blow-outs are also eliminated with airless tyres. Blow-outs can cause accidents, so that’s potentially life-saving.
Gone too, is that maximum speed limit (usually 80km/h) on those skinny little space saver tyres that have replaced that flat tyre now sitting in the boot.
And because there’s no need for any sort of spare tyre, that frees up quite a bit of space for vehicles, so there’s more room to carry stuff.
A lot of tyres are scrapped following punctures, which adds up to a lot of waste tyres, while others have their useful lives shortened due to incorrect inflation – either too much air, or too little. Airless tyres do away with that problem too.
That leads to the other advantage of airless tyres – they’re maintenance free. Once they’re on you can forget all about tyre pressures.
There are also energy efficiency gains with airless tyres because they don’t deform as much as regular tyres while rolling. With regular tyres using up two-to-seven percent of a vehicle’s energy simply overcoming tyre deformation, airless tyres promise to be more fuel-efficient.
But it’s not all plusses, there are definitely some downsides to the technology. The biggest drawback may be that they deliver a harsher ride. There are also questions about their high-speed stability, though at lower speeds they offer better traction, particularly in turns.
Cost is also a problem. They’re likely to be far more expensive than regular tyres and they’re longevity is unknown, making the total cost of ownership questionable.
So, when are we likely to see them on our roads? Well Michelin, the world’s biggest tyre maker, thinks we could be seeing them by the end of the decade, and General Motors wants to offer the next model of its electric Chevrolet Bolt with them by about 2025 or 2026, though we may not be seeing it in Australia given GM’s limited presence here.
So, it’s possible that in the coming decades we’ll be explaining to our children and grandchildren how tyres used to go flat back in the old days.