Technology embedded in tyres is increasingly matching the intelligence of the vehicles they are fitted on. Ben Rooth reports
Imagine a world with tyres that can sense hot, wet or icy road conditions before altering their pressure and grip to guarantee best performance.
Picture a tyre that’s sufficiently intelligent to alert you in real-time to any potential safety problems in advance of them escalating – or even repairing a puncture on its own.
Not long ago the above may have sounded more like something in a science fiction novel, but now all the indications are they will soon be here.
The tyre marketplace is crowded one – last year the Tyre Industry Federation said there were in excess of 3
00 brands sourced from more than 45 countries on sale in the UK. The pursuit of a unique selling proposition is never ending.
Microchips embedded in this next generation of connected tyres, combined with massive strides in the materials from which they’re made, will maximise safety and longevity while minimising carbon emissions and fuel costs.
Furthermore, they’ll be able to convey relevant and timely data to the vehicle, its driver and the fleet manager.
Perhaps the most eye-catching concept for the tyre of the future is the spherical Goodyear Eagle 360 Urban, unveiled at the Geneva motor show earlier this year.
Described by the manufacturer as “powered by artificial intelligence”, the tyre is the maker’s long-term vision for future smart, connected tyres and will be able to “sense, decide, transform and interact” with its surroundings.
The tyre features a ‘bionic’ skin, with a sensor network that allows it to check on its own status and gather information on its environment, including the road surface.
Through connectivity with other vehicles, buildings and road structure, as well as traffic and mobility management systems, the concept also captures information on its surroundings.
By combining this data, the tyre is able to react in a number of ways such as contracting and expanding its super-elastic polymer skin to suit the conditions: for example, it can add dimples for wet conditions, or smooth the tread for dry surfaces.
When the tyre’s skin is damaged, the sensors in the tread can locate the puncture.
The tyre then rotates to create a different contact patch which reduces pressure on the puncture and allows the self-healing process to start.
The self-healing works thanks to materials which are specifically designed to be able to flow towards the puncture.
They react physically and chemically with each other to form new molecular bonds, closing the puncture.
While its spherical shape means vehicle design will have to change dramatically, the Eagle 360 Urban does highlight how the tyre could develop to meet the requirements of connected and autonomous cars.
“A revolution will take place at the intersection of autonomy, mobility and connectivity,” says Jean-Claude Kihn, president of Goodyear Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA).
“As this unfolds, tyre technology will be even more important than it is today.
To safely navigate their surroundings, the autonomous vehicles of the future will need to learn to cope with the millions of possible unknowns we face in everyday driving scenarios.”
Another eye-catching tyre revealed earlier this year is Michelin’s Visionary Concept.
Made of recycled material in a honeycomb structure, it features no air and the manufacturer says its durability means it is designed to last as long as the vehicle.
Michelin says the material used in the tread delivers the same performance as a conventional tyre but is completely biodegradeable.
This means that by using a 3D printer you can print new tread if your existing tread is worn, or if the road conditions have changed, such as driving off-road or in rain or snow.
As 3D printing adds just the quantity of material that is necessary, there is no waste.
The Visionary Concept also includes connected functionality: without a driver getting out of the car or even leaving their home, they can be informed of the wear on their tyre and programme a tread reprint, choosing the tread pattern they need at that particular time, or simply following the suggestion made by the embedded app which detects their requirements.
At the Frankfurt show Continental unveiled two concept tyres which look more traditional but are still packed with technology.
Both ContiSense and ContiAdapt enable continuous monitoring of the tyre’s condition, as well as adapting its performance characteristics to prevailing road conditions.
ContiSense is based on the development of electrically conductive rubber compounds that enable electric signals to be sent from a sensor in the tyre to a receiver in the car.
The rubber-based sensors continuously monitor both tread and temperature.
If anything penetrates the tread, a circuit in the tyre is closed, also triggering an immediate warning for the driver – faster than current systems, which warn the driver only when the tyre pressure has already started to fall.
In future, Continental says the system will feature additional sensors that can be utilised individually to pass information on to the driver about the road surface, such as its temperature or the presence of snow.
ContiAdapt combines micro-compressors integrated into the wheel to adjust the tyre pressure with a variable-width rim.
The system can modify the size of the contact patch, which under different road conditions affects both safety and comfort.
Four different combinations allow the tyre to adapt to wet, uneven, slippery and normal conditions.
For example, a smaller contact patch combined with high tyre pressure reduces rolling resistance for energy efficient driving on smooth, dry roads.
In contrast, the combination of a larger contact patch with lower tyre pressure delivers greater grip on slippery roads.
A further Continental concept tyre enables the benefits of both systems to be fully utilised. The tyre design features three tread zones for driving on wet, slippery or dry surfaces.
Dependent on the tyre pressure and rim width, different tread zones are activated and the concept tyre adopts the required footprint in each case, meaning the tyre characteristics adapt to the prevailing road conditions or driver preferences.
Despite their radically different appearances, one thing these tyre concepts have in common is connectivity.
“Michelin is always looking at new services and systems to drive forward the mobility experience for our customers across all types of vehicles,” says Jamie McWhir, the company’s customer engineering support manager for car, van and 4x4.
“We include connected tyres in this process. Connected tyres will have different uses for different types of end-user, but in the fleet market I expect the technology will focus on maximising safety.
“In short, they’ll ensure the tyre is correctly inflated and has sufficient tread remaining, which will be hugely valuable for a fleet manager from a duty of care and corporate liability perspective.”
In other words, when these connected tyres arrive on the market, they should eliminate the need for regular and time-consuming visual checks to ensure legal compliance.
Fleets will also benefit from a reduction in vehicle downtime, says David Morris, business account manager for fleet and public sector at Goodyear Tyres.
“This technology will continue to be rolled out to car tyres and fleets over time, and will no doubt keep driving down the cost of ownership, vehicle breakdowns and service delivery,” he adds.
In March 2017, a collaboration between Bath University, Silent Sensors and the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) was announced and this aims to equip tyre manufacturers with state-of-the-art sensors and ‘piezoelectric energy harvesting’ abilities.
If successful, the initiative will result in tyres being able to convert motion into the electrical energy needed to power sensors and convey data.
The information gathered by these tyre sensors will be used to give vehicles the “reflexes needed to stay safe and efficient”, says the collaboration, while also being fed into the cloud for fleet analytics and transactional requirements such as carbon trading or paying by the kilometre.
Marcus Taylor, chief executive and co-founder of Silent Sensors, says: “The intelligent tyre is our goal in the next two years and the piezoelectric materials Bath University has developed show great promise.
“Within our tyre management system sensors, we have energy harvesting and storage, micro controllers, short-range radio and sensor arrays that will enable future autonomous vehicles to use their tyres to detect information about the environment.
“Our partnership with the CPI – which specialises in technology innovation – ensures that we will be able to scale up as demand in the market for these components grows as it inevitably will in the next five years.”
What other manufacturers are doing
For the past 11 years, Toyo has researched the viability of airless tyres that deliver comparable performance to their pneumatic counterparts.
It recently released its latest generation of airless concept tyre, the Noair. This features highly-rigid resin spokes to support the load demands placed upon the tyre. An outer diameter ring between the spokes and the tread, made from carbon fibre-reinforced plastic, serves to reduce the load imposed on the spokes.
According to Toyo, Noair “vastly exceeds the equivalent legal and regulatory requirements” for the pneumatic tyres it sells. The maker says rolling resistance is 25% better than its current products, while road noise is at a similar level.
Toyo says that while there are “still some issues related to noise within the vehicle and ride quality”, significant improvements in handling stability and external noise have narrowed the gap between Toyo’s airless concept and its commercial products in most areas.
Apollo Vredestein is working on materials, tread patterns and tyre designs to meet future demands.
“The future trends in automotive are sustainability and safety,” says Michele Sala, product manager for passenger vehicle tyres at Apollo Vredestein.
“Tyres play a key role in reducing fuel consumption and braking distance, particularly in wet and snowy conditions.
“Tyre sensors can also provide much useful information. Our research and development department is exploring many new technologies including connected tyres using active and passive sensors.
“In short, we are very focused on premium performance tyres and are consistently developing technologies that will be implemented in our original equipment and replacement products.”
Falken says it has been able to improve the grip, fuel efficiency and wear of its tyres by using its 4D-Nano technology to perform advanced material simulations and analysis.
The technology, which won the tyre technology of the year award at the Tyre Technology International Awards for Innovation and Excellence earlier this year, offers the ability to test and design tyres virtually with a very low tolerance for variance against the real world.
This means engineers can tweak the components and see how they perform under a variety of tests on modelled tracks/proving grounds, enabling them to develop new compounds.
A tyre for all seasons is gaining traction
One of the recent tyre trends many fleets have adopted is the emergence of a new generation of all-season tyres.
This began in 2015 with the launch of the Michelin CrossClimate range and has now been joined by the Continental AllSeasonContact. Both have gained 3PSMF winter certification.
Some of the appeal of these tyres, which are marketed as standard tyres with winter capability, is that many fleets which traditionally switch between standard and winter tyres now feel they no longer have to.
South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust has fitted Michelin CrossClimate+ tyres across its 200-car rapid response fleet.
Kevin Bartholomew, fleet operations manager at South Western Ambulance Service, says: “Lives depend on ensuring the safe mobility for our fleet, so we simply can’t afford for tyre-related downtime or lack of grip in the snow, ice and rain to delay us on a call-out.
“We only take vehicles off the road for safety inspections or maintenance, and the six-week transition period previously required to swap our summer and winter tyres twice a year was incredibly inconvenient. We now keep the same tyres on all year-round, saving time and money.”
Launching CrossClimate has been a success for Michelin, which has sold more than a million of the tyres throughout Europe in the 12 months after their launch.
Jamie McWhir, of Michelin Tyre, describes the range as the company’s most important launch in decades.
“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind about that,” he says.
“The original CrossClimate started with a compound we discovered at Le Mans – based on a hybrid intermediate tyre that had a wide temperature window and worked in both damp and wet conditions.”
McWhir adds: “In particular, the CrossClimate+ range has also been a true game-changer for the fleet sector.
“In the UK, most fleets had avoided adopting a winter tyre policy because they viewed them as expensive, a hassle, and there’s simply no legislation which requires it.
“But our CrossClimate+ tyres are unique for offering the benefits of a summer tyre for dry and wet braking, energy efficiency and total mileage, while also boasting the braking performance and traction of a winter tyre on cold, wet or snow-covered roads.
“The growth we’ve seen has been phenomenal, winning sales from previously non-Michelin customers.”
By Jonathan Layton, head of fleet, Michelin
Like all aspects of fleet, tyre technology is moving apace.
At the Frankfurt Motor Show, we unveiled our new Michelin Primacy 4 tyres which will enterthe market next year.
They last an average of 11,000 miles more than those of our direct competitors, based on independent testing by DEKRA with a VW Golf Mk7 running on popular 205/55 R16* size tyres.
This long-lasting performance could potentially save a high mileage fleet vehicle a set of tyres over the life of a contract – leading to a notable financial and environmental saving.
What’s more, the new Primacy 4 will brake shorter and deliver a very high level of wet grip from the first to the last mile.
This leap in performance is thanks to our annual investment of more than €700m (£630m) in R&D, which has led to a new generation rubber compound and tread pattern which ensures the tyres are safe when new, and safe when worn.
Future innovations could see tyre maintenance becoming much simpler, safer and more costeffective, with the introduction of ‘smart’ tyres.
Manufacturers are developing systems to detect and send pressure, temperature and tread depth readings to the driver and fleet manager, giving immediate notification when a tyre issue is detected, or when replacement tyres are needed.
Fleets will likely embrace the arrival of a tyre that will never be removed early – ensuring they’re getting the maximum life from every single fitment.
But will they take full advantage of what else this technology might offer? That’s a key question facing the industry right now.
The arrival of smart tyres will require fleets to have robust and efficient systems in place to ensure the information they receive from a set of smart tyres prompts the right actions.