Rolling out Airless Tires

What happens when you take the air out of a tire? Ask any automotive technician and he or she will tell you to dust of your jack and get out your spare. …But not so fast. It looks like a tire without air is exactly what you’ll be hoping for.

The automotive industry is breaking ground with the newest developments in airless “non-pneumatics.” Michelin was the first in the game eight years ago when it introduced the “Tweel” (a combination of “tire” and “wheel”), which mounted a solid inner hub straight to the axle. It looked like a large, futuristic bike wheel and was very noisy. Bridgestone unveiled their own version in 2011, but both companies still have significant improvements to make before they can start thinking about a widespread roll-out.

Currently, off-road vehicle specialist Polaris is showing off their airless tires, developed by Wisconsin-based Resilient Technologies, with plans to debut a consumer version by early next year. Similar to the Tweel, the inner core is made of plastic spokes molded in a honeycomb web. The open design prevents dirt, branches, and rocks from getting stuck inside. The difference is that their tire not only runs silently, but is tough enough for the military. Actually, they’ve developed the technology specifically for off-road military ATVs.

The U.S. Army began using Polaris tires on their ATVs about a month ago, but not before putting them through a ton of tests, including firing .50 caliber bullets at them. Even after being punctured by a rail spike, they could travel on for over a thousand miles. The tire effortlessly rolls over sharp rocks and tree stumps and absorbs impacts without the jarring bumps of traditional tires. This translates to a smoother and safer ride. It works “similar to a bicycle wheel, where the load is carried in tension across the top of the wheel,” says Polaris spokesperson Jason Difuccia. “The bottom of the wheel is designed to give in to obstacles like rocks, curbs, and other terrain.”

The outer rubber tread and spoke tension should be adaptable to suit various purposes, including city or even performance driving, though it remains to be seen whether airless tires can match the rolling resistance and fuel economy of current pneumatic tires. Michelin previously outfitted an Audi A4 with Tweels made with five times the lateral stiffness of pneumatic tires, which reportedly provided “very responsive handling.”

Let’s take a look at airless tires in action:

These flat-proof tires should hit the market next year with an estimated price tag of $500, but at this rate, it looks like students in Auto Sales and Leasing won’t have too much trouble explaining the benefits of these tires to future clients.

Would you put these on your car? How do you think they might affect automotive careers in the future?

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