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From wheel to tweel: GM partners with Michelin on airless tire

Key Points
  • Michelin has been working on a concept, dubbed the tweel, for several years.
  • It's finally looking at producing it with GM under the brand name Uptis.
  • The tweel could go into production for the mass market by 2024.
Michelin's Research & Development Director Eric Vinesse (left) and GM Global Purchasing Chief Steve Kiefer (right) show off the companies Tweel protype, called the Uptis.
Mack Hogan | CNBC

General Motors and tire manufacturer Michelin are in a new partnership on a prototype of a radical new type of wheel designed to replace the conventional pneumatic tires and wheels that automakers have relied on for more than a century.

Airless wheels have been a dream for tire manufacturers and automakers alike and offer a number of potential advantages, officials from GM and Michelin noted during a news conference in Montreal. The French company has been working on a concept, dubbed the tweel, for several years and is finally looking at producing it for the mass market under the brand name Uptis, GM and Michelin officials said Tuesday.

"This moves us to the next level of development," said Steve Kiefer, GM's global purchasing chief. He said it's targeted for production by 2024.

The question is, of course, whether the technology will work. GM will still have to confirm that before it locks down final production plans. Competitors, including Bridgestone-Firestone, are also working on airless tires.

In GM and Michelin's current prototype, Uptis looks like a skeletal form of a conventional tire. There are three individual components, starting with an outer layer made of a mix of rubber and synthetic compounds. It features the same sort of tread pattern as a conventional tire. But there are no sidewalls. Instead, the latest prototype uses high-strength composite spokes that are mated to an aluminum hub, which mounts to a car's axle, just like a conventional tire.

General Motors and Michelin show off their prototype of the Tweel under the brand name Uptis.
Mack Hogan | CNBC

The Uptis cannot be inflated. It also can't go flat or experience a blowout, something GM and Michelin believe can improve highway safety. Kiefer noted that industry data shows about 1 in 5 tires will undergo a loss of air pressure at some point each year. Improper inflation is often a cause of crashes and was blamed for hundreds of deaths involving Ford Explorers and Firestone tires two decades ago.

Though most major tire manufacturers have been working on airless technology, their efforts have gone slowly, at least until now. The challenge has been to come up with a design that can match the behavior of conventional tires in terms of performance, handling, energy efficiency and cost.

Eric Vinesse, Michelin's head of research and development, said the Uptis will be just as fuel efficient as a conventional tire. Other benefits the companies tout include a lower cost and longer lifespan than conventional tires.

Michelin , which has done extensive virtual testing of the Uptis, has recently begun to run it on real vehicles. GM is testing it on a fleet of Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles.

GM Global Purchasing Chief Steve Kiefer shows off the company's Tweel protype, called the Uptis, that it's making with Michelin.
Mack Hogan | CNBC

Disclosure: Paul Eisenstein is a freelancer for CNBC. His travel and accommodations to the Movin'On Summit in Montreal, where the press briefing was held were paid for by Michelin.