Puncture-Proof Tires: Get No More Flats

Motor Matters

Did you know that today’s tires and wheels are evolved from the carriage wheels of the horse-and-buggy era? Of course, in those days, the power source also provided the tractive force needed to set and keep the vehicle in motion. After all, horses, mules, and oxen provided their own traction.

The tires were irrelevant, as wheels-only made dragging the load easier for the animals. This changed when Karl Benz introduced his vehicle in 1886, and tires became responsible for managing traction, as well as steering and braking. Metal hoops wrapped around wooden wheels were hopelessly inadequate for these tasks.

Benz fitted solid-rubber tires to the wheels on his cars. From there, John Dunlop developed the forerunner to today’s tire with internal support provided by an air-filled rubber tube. Patented in 1888, these were softer and more compliant than solid rubber, so they improved traction and ride quality significantly. They also introduced flat tires, a concern motorists deal with to this day.

Fortunately, tire technology has improved such that the contemporary driver needn’t be overly concerned about them, particularly if they’re careful to avoid running over debris on roadways.

However, the ascendance of autonomous vehicles introduces a new consideration. While these automobiles are being developed to follow roadways and avoid hitting pedestrians and other cars, they can’t be counted on to stop and fix a puncture. Yes, we’ve had run-flat tires since the mid-1980s, however that’s just a temporary solution. These, too, must be repaired at some point.

To counter this, Michelin and General Motors have teamed up to “reinvent the wheel,” so to speak, with the introduction of the Michelin Uptis Prototype. An acronym for Unique Puncture-proof Tire System; introduction is expected by 2024.

“Uptis eliminates regular maintenance, such as pressure checks and inspections for damage, such as punctures,” says Eric Vinesse, executive vice president, research and development, Group Michelin. “This makes it ideal for the vehicles of tomorrow, whether it’s self-driving shuttles or all-electric vehicles.”

Groundbreaking improvements in architecture and composite materials enable the tire to bear a car’s weight at road-going speeds without compressed air. Having been proven in the laboratory, real-world testing is slated to begin later this year on a fleet of Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles.

“Engineered for today’s passenger vehicles, Uptis is also well suited to emerging forms of mobility,” says Steve Kiefer, senior vice president, global purchasing and supply chain, General Motors. “The vehicles and fleets of tomorrow — whether autonomous, all-electric, shared service, or other applications — will demand near-zero maintenance from the tire to maximize their operating capabilities.”

As good as all of this is, sustainability is another anticipated benefit. Currently, some 200 million tires are lost every year to punctures, damage from road hazards, and uneven wear from improper inflation. Eliminating the potential for these maladies will reduce the number of tires condemned to scrap, which will mean less production overall. This, in turn, will minimize the raw materials and energy consumed manufacturing them, as well as lowering the number sent to landfills each year.

“Uptis demonstrates [that] Michelin’s vision for a future of sustainable mobility is clearly an achievable dream,” says Florent Menegaux, chief executive officer for Michelin Group. “Through work with strategic partners like GM, who share our ambitions for transforming mobility, we can seize the future today.”

Remarkably though, Uptis’ airless technology essentially brings this aspect of transportation full circle. After all, when you think about it, this approach poetically mimics the wheels of the horse-and-buggy era. It seems everything old really does become new again.

The Michelin Uptis Prototype is tested on a Chevrolet Bolt EV at the General Motors Milford Proving Ground in Michigan. GM intends to develop this airless wheel assembly with Michelin and aims to introduce it on passenger vehicles as early as 2024.