Ever since cavemen first invented the wheel, people have been trying to improve upon it. At its core a wheel is a circle, and it’s pretty hard to innovate on the premise of a shape. Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped many brave and valiant souls from trying and, in fact, wheels and – more specifically – tire technology and innovation has undergone a bevy of iterations since its inception, and many more are on deck.
That’s because worldwide tire manufacturing is a $19 billion dollar industry. That’s a lot of cash for R&D, and today’s tire engineers are utilizing their hefty R&D budgets to once again one-up our cavemen ancestors with a slate of new technological advances addressing every side of the tire triforce: safety, performance, and longevity.
Most consumers don’t think of the word “technology” when they think of the standard automobile tire, and for good reason: the basic function and look of automotive tires have not changed dramatically in the last century. But the tire industry is innovating, and ‘smart tires’ and technological advancements are being planned by many leading tire manufacturers.
One need look no further than 2020 when Bridgestone, Goodyear and Continental all appeared at the annual Consumer Electronic Show to showcase their latest tire technology, including airless tires, digital technology that lets two tires communicate with one another, and intelligent tires that can communicate with entire fleets of vehicles.
TireTrend.com scoured the internet and spoke with a variety of experts to compile the top five most promising tire technologies. There are many more than five technologies in the pipeline – and we link to some really far-out ideas at the end of this article – but the following tire technologies are being explored by a variety of manufacturers, with some already deployed and available today, and others likely coming to market in the near future.
#1. Air-less or Air-free Tires
The fancy scientific term here is non-pneumatic tires (since pneumatic means something that contains air or gas), but amongst us mortals (and the marketing departments) these types of tires are being called Air-less or Air-free tires. Conventional tires have air inside that provide a variety of benefits, the most important being that it acts as a cushion to both support the weight of the vehicle and provide shock-absorbing properties when driving. Let’s face it – these work pretty darn well and are equipped on nearly every wheeled vehicle with a motor that is trying to get from Point A to Point B.
For as much as pneumatic tires are the standard, they are also flawed in many ways, and given that they are seemingly ever-present, everyone knows of their flaws: they deflate; they degrade; and they require maintenance to ensure proper performance. And heaven help you if they puncture while going 70 on a highway. They also not re-usable or recyclable (more on that below).
Air-free tires are exactly what they sound like: there’s no air inside of them. Instead, the theory behind Air-less tires is that they use some other type of compound in place of air to support the weight and provide cushion to the vehicle. Designs largely resemble a bicycle tire, with some type of spokes or other internal structure that mimics the function of air in today’s traditional tires.
Here’s a picture of Bridgestone’s version, which they call their ’Air Free Concept’, and clicking on that link will take you to a very marketing-y type video showing them in action (or, at least, in action in a super-controlled non-real life environment):
Bridgestone, Goodyear, Michelin and others have all announced the exploration of Air-free tires, some upwards of five years ago, but things are really starting to hit a fever pitch as things move from the conception to the demonstration phase.
So what’s the benefit of Air-free tires?
Well, no more flat tires. No more punctures that leave you stranded by the side of the road or – worse – blowouts that scare the bejesus out of you while cruising at top speeds. With this comes added reliability and, potentially, cost savings. On cost, little is known how much Air-free tires may cost once they are commercially available, but we can tell you that we’d pay more per tire to avoid the horror of buying new conventional tires only to run over a nail or piece of glass on the way home from the tire shop (a nightmare scenario to be sure, but we hear horror stories like these regularly in our tire travels). For all these reasons, Air-less tires truly are some of the most promising tire technology and innovation being explored today.
#2. Run-flat Tires
Unlike Air-less tires that are still largely in the demonstration phase, run-flat tires are real. They can be purchased today online or at many tire shops across the nation. Run-flat tires are by no means standard though they do come preinstalled on some newer vehicles. And they can be retrofitted to many vehicles made in the last decade.
Overall, run-flat tires are nearly identical to traditional tires sans the addition of reinforced steel in the sidewall of the tires. This added strength is there to support the weight of the vehicle in the even of a puncture of some other loss of air. When that happens, run-flat tires allow occupants to travel an additional 50 miles at 50 miles per hour.
But, in many ways, the promise of Run-flat tires seems to outpace the practicality of them. We wrote a lengthy article looking at the technology behind run-flat tires and exploring their pros and cons. The full article can be found by clicking on the link above but we’ve taken the liberty of copying the quick hit summary table below:
So why did they make this list of top tire technologies and innovations?
Because they represent a true, real tire innovation… one of the first major advancements that reached commercial deployment in the last half century. And despite their flaws, they do provide benefit to the consumer, so much so that nearly every major tire manufacturer has a set of run-flat tires in their arsenals… not for every size or style, mind you. Nonetheless, check out our full summary on run-flat tires if you’d like to learn more.
#3. Self-charging Tires
Goodyear won tons of attention in 2015 for its announcement of a concept tire that could charge your vehicle while you drive. Dubbed BH-03, the theory went that one could harness static electricity and/or heat from the road-to-tire connection and use it to charge a vehicle’s battery. They even created a video showing the concept technology in action.
But, since then, there’s been bupkis by way of any major progress regarding tires that generate electricity, confirmed by a quick scour online showing that this idea has barely moved from conception to experimentation.
So why the heck are self-charging tires on this list?
Because of Tesla.
Ok, not just Tesla, but because of the explosion of current and planned electric vehicles (EV’s) in the US. GM, Volkswagen, Nissan, and so many more have either brought new EV’s to market or announced concrete plans to do so in the coming years. Ford even electrified the Mustang for goodness sake!
So how does this connect to tires?
Well, EV’s use batteries; batteries need electricity; ergo any automotive technology that can supply electricity to an EV’s batteries is likely to get renewed attention, especially with ‘range anxiety’ being cited as one of the main reasons consumers are hesitant about EV’s. A search on the dark web (meaning page 3 of Google) confirmed that there might be some renewed attention growing, as Japanese tire maker Sumitomo announced in 2019 plans to develop a tire capable of harvesting static electricity from tires and using that to provide ancillary power to an EV’s battery, thus helping extend the overall range of EV’s. In our estimation, this tire technology and innovation is certain to balloon in the years ahead.
#4. Green Tires
We all know that tires are made from rubber, right? While rubber – either natural or synthetic – is the overwhelming material, tires have loads of other compounds inside of them, including steel, metals, fabrics, carbon black and plastic. This isn’t a very eco-friendly list of materials.
Fortunately, nearly every major tire manufacturer has committed to doing their part to develop more eco-friendly tires, both by improving on materials and design of tires on the road today, as well as by exploring the development of concept tires made from biodegradable and recycled materials.
In fact, earlier this year, Michelin announced that all of its tires – production and concept models – will be made entirely from renewable, recycled, biosourced or other sustainable materials by 2050. That’s up from the 28% of tire components that are either natural, recycled or sustainable today. They also released a fun – but slightly trippy – video in conjunction with their announcement to further tout their forthcoming tire technology and innovation:
Unlike some of the other tires on this list of the most innovative tire developments, we chose not to signal out any one specific tire or concept here. Instead, green and eco-friendly tires made this list because it’s evident that the broader industry is committed to improving the environmental footprint of its products, and that means we will see many different innovations – big and small; concept and realized – in the years ahead.
#5. Regenerating Tires
We saved the best tire technology and innovation for last. Just imagine a tire that never needs to be changed, can never go flat, and rebuilds itself right in front of your eyes. That’s what the mad scientists at Goodyear had in mind when they announced in 2020 Goodyear reCharge, a tire that is air-less, built from 100% sustainable materials, and can adapt in real-time by regenerating itself in response to different situations and actions.
The magic happens (or would happen) courtesy of a liquid compound that changes the tire tread in response to different road and weather conditions. The concept tire also utilizes spider silk, which is biodegradable and, when weaved together, is supposedly stronger than Kevlar. This feature also drew comparisons to Spiderman by my six year old son, officially making this tire eligible to be part of The Avengers.
Alongside of the announcement, GoodYear released a slick, futuristic video explaining the concept in language even us mortals can understand:
In many ways, the reCharge concept melds many of the top tire technologies featured on this list into one, thus cornering the market on tire technology and earning two graphical treatments on this section. All that said, fancy graphics and multimedia don’t equate to reality, so it remains to be seen whether or not the reCharge will become reality, but its promise is encouraging.
The Future of Tire Technology and Innovation
If you really want to see some far-fetched ideas for tire technology and innovation – some of which are actually in the pilot development stage – check out this post from Interesting Engineering looking at seven tire innovations that, in their words, will ‘have your mind reeling.’ You’ll see some overlap between their list and ours, proving that some of these concepts are closer to reality than science-fiction, but moss-covered tires that clean the air while they roll? That one just missed our list!