Also, car companies have been engineering cars and their suspension systems for a century with the idea that the vehicles would be riding on air-inflated tires. Airless tires could perform differently, presenting a challenge for car engineers.
Michelin is trying to replicate as closely as possible the behavior of air-filled tires. Given the completely different structure of these tires compared to pneumatic ones it will be challenging to replicate that feel, said Ryan Pszczolkowski, who oversees tire testing at Consumer Reports. It’s especially challenging given that pneumatic tires come in a wide variety and feel and behave differently from one another.
“I mean, we’re literally reinventing the wheel here,” he said.
Michelin already sells an airless tire, called the X Tweel, for use on lawnmowers and similar off-road equipment like ATVs. One X Tweel for a lawnmower — it includes the tire and its integrated wheel, rather than the tire and wheel being separate — can cost over $600, according to the product website. But Michelin claims they last longer than pneumatic tires and offer a more comfortable ride because they aren’t as bouncy.
But passenger car drivers are going to be pickier than lawnmower drivers about things like ride, handling, and noise. Cars operate at much higher speeds and take corners much faster than off-road machinery. Michelin engineers have to replicate the feel and performance of pneumatic tires under this more demanding daily use.
For these reasons, the passenger car version Michelin is developing, called the Uptis, has a different construction even though it looks almost the same as the X Tweel. The central ribs that hold it up are made from rubber reinforced with resin-injected fiberglass while the X Tweel’s ribs are made with polyurethane, for instance.
Of course, any consumer acceptance of an airless tire will also depend on the cost. But its introduction on the next generation of Bolt, a car that starts just shy of $32,000, appears to indicate that airless tires won’t be limited to the upper end of the market
Beyond this first electric car, the sheer variety of tire sizes and types already on the market will create its own challenges, said Pszczolkowski, as Michelin works to create airless tires for more vehicles.
“It seems like every time a new vehicle comes out a new tire size is invented,” he said. “It’s really maddening.”
In the end, said Pszczolkowski, the success of airless tires really depends on how much trouble and expense consumers are willing to go to to avoid a flat tire.