Column: Tires are the new black gold
First mile to last, almost every form of mobility needs tires
From e-scooters to bikes, rideshares to carpooling, there’s one factor that unifies almost all mobility solutions – the need for quality tires.
As a result, it’s no surprise to learn that the sales of the big five global tire firms – Bridgestone (Japan), Michelin (France), Goodyear (USA), Continental (Germany) and Pirelli (Italy) – trend in a predominantly upward direction.
Last year, if you combine the sales figures declared in the five firms’ annual reports, the number tops out at over €82bn – almost €30bn of which is from Bridgestone, the world’s largest tire firm alone.
But it’s not just necessity that makes the tire makers so powerful in the ongoing development of the automotive industry. The true value in just about all new mobility solutions is the all-important gathering of data, which reveals exactly how people use a host of different vehicles.
Armed with this knowledge, products can be honed in scope and soar in value accordingly. For that reason, the connected tire becomes a crucial weapon in collecting information, going beyond today's Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems (TPMS) with sensors being able to detect everything from weather conditions, to wear rates, to usage patterns across a whole spectrum of vehicles, and feed it back to the tire firms who can provide it as a value-added service... for a price of course.
No longer simple black circles
The connected or smart tire industry is set to expand significantly, but major players are already beginning to show their hands with new tire tech.
Earlier this year, Bridgestone announced that it had acquired the telematics business of Dutch firm TomTom for €910million. Confirming the deal, Bridgestone said the acquisition "will enhance [its] virtual tire development and testing as well as connected tire innovation benefiting all customers."
At the time of the purchase, TomTom’s telematics user base stood at 860,000 vehicles, with over two thirds belonging to fleets.
The move reinforces Bridgestone’s strategic move to become more a ‘tires as a service’ provider, than simply a maker of black, round circles.
Its acquisition and launch activity reflects this trend. For example, its monthly tire subscription service, Mobox, launched in Europe in 2018, as did FleetPulse, a phone and web app that allows live tire pressure monitoring across a fleet of vehicles, with data stored in the cloud.
The benefit to administrators of large numbers of vehicles is clear, with digital services providing at a glance what would traditionally require vehicle downtime – a big challenge given ever-growing numbers of delivery vehicles taking to the roads to deliver today’s latest Amazon Prime must-have.
Competitors get connected
Not to be outdone, Michelin has also expanded its connected tire repertoire. Back in 2007, the firm showed “a complete surveillance and reporting platform for tires and trucks, integrating vehicle cycle analysis.” Called the MEMS4 platform, it is designed for civil engineering and mining industry vehicles.
The firm also used Le Bourget Air Show 2017 to show the world’s first connected aviation tire, which has since made its first flight, and in the same year presented its connected truck tire for fleet use.
In 2018, Michelin partnered with two French startups to introduce its Track Connect tires. Using an app, drivers can monitor their tire performance when taking part in trackdays.
The system uses sensors in the tires to measure pressure and temperature, and transmits this via a radio signal to a receiver in the vehicle, which then transmits to a phone using Bluetooth. The app then displays laptime recordings and advice on tire pressure alterations that might help you drive faster.
Goodyear is also, unsurprisingly in on the connected tire act. In 2017, it partnered with Tesloop, a city to city mobility service in the US that used Teslas for journeys between 50 and 250 miles.
The Teslas traveled an average of 17,000 miles per month, allowing Goodyear to gather valuable tire temperature and pressure data, which was paired with other vehicle data and connected to Goodyear’s cloud-based algorithms. The initiative follows a similar project the firm ran using trucking fleets.
Concept connected tires
The intelligent tire activities of the world’s three biggest tire makers give an indication of where the development attention, and thus cash, is perceived to be. The trend towards fleet benefits is a clear priority, particularly for trucks and vans where downtime is a significantly greater issue than a private car.
However, in order to look at what the future of the smart tire holds, some of the concepts unveiled by the tire companies in recent years reveal where the industry is likely to head.
3D printed, adaptive, connected
Michelin's Vision Concept was shown in 2017, and is an airless wheel and tire combination designed to last as long as the vehicle. The concept introduced the idea of wheel structures made of recycled materials that are 100 percent biodegradable and recyclable.
The firm has worked with its Tweel airless tires for some time, and sells them for the ATV market, while South Korean firm Hankook has shown concept elastic polyurethane airless tire studies.
Also of note is the tire tread that can be added to using a 3D printer based on wear and mobility needs. Michelin says the material used is “based on cold vulcanization technology and offers the same performance as a conventional tire.”
The tire also takes the connected theme up a notch, as the tire can inform the driver that its tread is wearing so they can schedule reprinting and select the right tread based on their use, forthcoming weather conditions and so on.
Continental’s concept tire is a little closer to production. In 2018, it showed its ContiSense and ContiAdapt tech. The former uses rubber-based sensors to monitor tread depth and temperature. If the values dip, or a puncture is detected, the firm claims the system alerts the driver much faster than current TPMS.
ContiAdapt allows the tire pressure to be altered to modify the size of the tire contact patch. Four different combinations allow optimal grip in wet, uneven, slippery and normal conditions.
For example, an EV could benefit from running a smaller contact patch and high tire pressure most of the time, helping to reduce rolling resistance and increase range, but also give the option of a lower tire pressure for slippery or wet roads when they are sensed.
Tires even further ahead
Looking right out of this world, NASA, together with Goodyear, has been refining tire and wheel designs for future Mars rover projects and beyond.
Compliant, terrain-matching tires made from shape memory alloys seem to offer the best mix of durability, weight and ride. Another to use shape-shifting tech in some way, and while a little far off – both in time and distance – perhaps, space projects have a history of influencing all manner of Earth-bound tech.
Goodyear appears, at least in public, most prepared to share its forward thinking ideas. Not one but two concepts spring to mind – the Oxygene, unveiled at the 2018 Geneva Motor Show, claims to clean the air by inhaling CO2 from the air to feed the moss in its sidewall and release oxygen via photosynthesis.
The firm reckons it could generate nearly 3,000 tons of oxygen and absorb more than 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year if all the tires of all the cars in a city the size of Paris were Oxygenes.
The tire also features 3D-printed non-pneumatic construction made with rubber powder from recycled tires.
Some of the tire's embedded connected tech is notable - including a customizable light strip in the tire’s sidewall that switches colors, warning both road users and pedestrians of upcoming maneuvers, such as lane changes or braking. The tire also uses embedded LiFi to connect to the Internet of Things, allowing vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) data exchange.
Goodyear’s other tire innovation, the Eagle 360 Urban, is Goodyear’s manifesto for its plan to “revolutionize the interaction between tires, vehicles and their surroundings.”
The tire is actually a 3D-printed sphere that uses AI, fed by its own sensors and V2V and V2I communication, to change shape. It’s made of super-elastic polymer, with flexibility and self-healing traits similar to human skin, allowing it to expand and contract like muscles to adapt to its surroundings. The tire builds on Goodyear’s original Eagle 360 tire that uses MagLev tech instead of suspension to connect to the car.
What have we learned?
Just like the future of the car is one that’s connected, autonomous, shared and electric, the tire of tomorrow will become ever-smarter. From today’s new generation EV tires that feature revised compounds to cope with the heavy weights of batteries and high motor torque, we’re already moving to embedded sensors that allow more efficient vehicle usage, safer trips and yet more information about the conditions of the road network to be gathered.
In the future, adaptive treads and illumination seem like safe bets, while increasing sustainability and combined wheel and tire units look to be on the horizon.
But whatever happens, almost every mobility solution needs a way to roll, and you can bet that the tire companies are planning to be right there every step of the way.