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They're completely airless, last virtually forever, and could be the perfect tire for our autonomous future. Michelin, the 128-year-old tire manufacturer based in Clermont-Ferrand, France, recently unveiled a 3D-printed tire concept that it says could be the ideal ride for self-driving cars. It just needs to figure out how to actually manufacture them first.
Dubbed "Vision," these spidery, psychedelic-looking sponges are printed from bio-sourced and biodegradable materials, including natural rubber, bamboo, paper, tin cans, wood, electronic and plastic waste, hay, tire chips, used metals, cloth, cardboard, molasses, and orange zest.
While it may sound like Michelin is rooting through your compost pile to come up with its futuristic concept, there's more to it than that. These tires would be embedded with RFID sensors to collect data and predict performance and function of the vehicle. And they will be adaptive to different conditions. Heading to the mountains for some skiing? Drive through a Michelin printing station and get your tires retrofitted for snowy terrain.
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"This concept vision is a dream for an ideal solution for the long-term," said Terry Gettys, Michelin's executive VP for research and development. "We're confident you can replace a tire-and-wheel-combination with a unique structure, carry the load, provide good comfort and noise, and we're very encouraged that can be the solution of the future."
If cars become fully autonomous, then the traditional design language that has held up for decades goes out the window. Engineers and automakers are already beginning to rethink the vehicle's interior, removing steering wheels, adding bookshelves, and positioning car seats to face one another. Rather than be left behind, Michelin is contributing to this effort through its reinvention of its tires, both in form and function.
"As vehicles become more automated, the requirements for handling and driving pleasure are greatly diminished," Gettys said. "In fact the passengers when they turn over the driving to the car, they don't even care about the handling feel. And as such, there's going to be a huge shift in customer expectations toward comfort and noise."
He continued, "They'll want to enter the vehicle like a cocoon and have a very pleasurable experience getting to their destination, but that pleasure coming from using their telephone, their PC, discussing, and being totally oblivious to the distractions outside."
The concept of "air-free" tires isn't new. Bridgestone has been playing around with the idea since 2013, when it unveiled its first air-free concept for tiny, smart-car sized vehicles. It was a bid to reduce the need for drivers to pull to the side of the road to fix flat tires, as well as reduce CO2 emissions and create a more sustainable drive. Recently, it began testing airless bicycle tires.
The Vision tire first debuted at the company's Movin' On conference in Montreal earlier this year. Michelin then brought samples of the 3D-printed tire to New York City in early August for more exposure. But a brief trip through the 128-year-old company's history reveals that this isn't Michelin's first rimless, airless tire to be released. The Tweel, an airless tire concept that emerged over a decade ago, is currently in use in small-frame, low-speed vehicles and appliances like golf carts and lawn mowers.
The limited application of the Tweel hints at the challenges Michelin will face in mass producing its 3D-printed concept. "It's really not an existing product," Gettys said. "We don't have all the materials to make this work."
So what's missing? Michelin already manufactures tires with embedded RFID sensors for groups like the Porsche Club and truckers, allowing for the monitoring of things like temperature and pressure. So connected tires won't be too difficult, Gettys said. The long-term challenges relate to printing the entire material structure from biodegradable materials like sugar stalks and orange zest. That will require much further research, he admits. But Michelin is working with a number of external partners and predicts being able to entire into production by 2023.
It's an admirable pursuit, and a sustainable one too. Currently, over 70 percent of tires produced globally are made from non-biodegradable materials. (Just think of the eternal burning tire pile in The Simpsons.) Natural rubber is replenishable, but most of the materials are petroleum-based. It's taken researchers 10 years to produce biosourced synthetic elastomers. "It may take the same amount of time" to make all of the other materials that comprise automobile tires, Gettys said.
But even when it finally gets to productions, further hurdles remain for Michelin's vision of airless tires printed from biodegradable materials. For example, what's to prevent the tires from biodegrading while in use? "That's a good question," Gettys said, "and that's the real challenge."