Goodyear is testing a custom-engineered non-pneumatic (airless) tyre (NPT) to support Starship delivery robots. Credit: Goodyear

Motoring with Peter Vosper: Flat tyres may soon be nothing but hot air

Peter Vosper

Tyres have always been important for vehicles with different variants offering different benefits.

Drivers rarely check their tyres as often as they become used to increased reliability and relatively few problems, but are frustrated by tyres that wear out, or even worse, lose pressure or puncture.

The smaller ‘get you home’ wheels supplied as original equipment in some new vehicles are not popular, and having to change a wheel, particularly on a busy road, can be a worrying experience.

Now we could see the end of black rubber, air-filled donuts which have been around since the 1890s.

Goodyear have been testing a new tyre which is completely airless.

Special plastic spokes support a thin, reinforced rubber tread. The spokes flex and contort as the vehicle goes through its paces.

Michael Rachita, Goodyear’s senior program manager for non-pneumatic (NPTs), is straight about the limitations.

He said: “There will be noise and some vibration. We’re still learning how to soften the ride but we think you will be surprised about the performance. While air-filled tyres will always have their place, a mixture of solutions is needed.

“As we move into a world where autonomous vehicles are becoming more common and many cities are offering transport-as-a-service strategies, having a maintenance-free tyre is hugely important.”

It is already apparent there is more wear on electric vehicles and delivery firms and shuttle services want products that are low-maintenance, puncture-proof, recyclable and have sensors that map road conditions.

Goodyear’s rival, Michelin, have also been working on airless tyres with General Motors.

In February, there were reports that suggested Michelin’s Unique Puncture-proof tyre system (Uptis) could arrive on an electric Chevrolet Bolt as early as 2024.

Uptis tyres are made of high-strength resin embedded with fibreglass and composite rubber to create a mesh structure that surrounds an aluminium wheel.

Uptis is a step to something bigger. Michelin have a multi-year plan to create a tyre that is airless, connected, 3D-printed and made entirely of materials that can be melted down and be re-used.

Not all manufacturers believe that airless tyres are the solution.

Denise Speri, a director of car tyre research at Continental Tyres, said: “To this day we believe pneumatic tyres are the best choice for most vehicles.”

Continental are developing a self-inflating system where pumps and sensors in the wheel keep the tyres at optimum level.

They are also looking into greener products. Polyester from recycled plastic bottles will soon be used in its premium tyres and both Goodyear and Continental are researching a dandelion flower that produces latex similar to rubber trees.

The pace of change is faster than ever and at last there is a desire to advance with the help of the planet and a resultant help to sustain the planet for many generations to come.