These Companies Are Trying to Reinvent the Wheel – Literally

Hankook tires on car
Hankook iFlex Airless Tires

When we think about tires we might think: rims (if we’re stylish), air pressure (if we’re safety-conscious), or tread and traction (if we live somewhere prone to extreme weather). But most likely for most people (for the past few decades in the automobile world), the party line has pretty much been that a tire is a tire, and a wheel is a wheel. But while we might not be accustomed to big headlines about the latest and greatest in the world of tires, there are several companies now working to “reinvent the wheel” (literally), disrupting the tire industry by creating more efficient alternatives to the rubber-air-steel combination we know and love (heh). The best of new tire technology:

Pneumatic Tires

First, the industry standard: pneumatic tires. This is the classic rubber-steel-air combination which has kept our vehicles moving since 1888. Digital Trends explains that the standard tire design: a “doughnut-shaped body of cords and wires encased in rubber and filled with compressed air,” allows tires to compress as they make contact with the road, and then snap back to their original shape. Digital Trends explains that while each of the world’s approximate 450 tire manufacturers puts their own spin on tire construction, they begin with the same basic elements. The most popular brands, according to Digital Trends: Bridgestone, Michelin, Goodyear, Continental, and Pirelli.

Pile of old car tires
Still, there has been recent development in the pneumatic tire world. Digital Trends sums up the latest:

  • The greatest strides in recent years have been towards precision engineering of each tire, better rubber compounds, and data-aggregating tools built right into each tire.
  • Michelin invented a tire that will evolve as it wears out, retaining its road-holding performance until the bitter end.
  • The “Discolor Tyre” starts life as any other black rubber tire, but as tread wear reaches minimum legal level, a layer of bright orange rubber surfaces. This feature could go a long way toward road safety: most drivers don’t know how to check their tires, and in the U.S., 13 percent of cars have one or more bald tires, which presents a serious safety risk.

Pneumatic tires get the job done with fairly little hassle, and therefore aren’t going anywhere any time soon, but nonetheless, tire innovators are on the case.

Airless Tires

With the common problems that plague traditional pneumatic tires—flats, air leaks, low pressure—it seems going airless would be the most obvious step. But the truth is, attempts at airless tires in the past have resulted in extreme passenger discomfort. In fact, the first tires were solid and the pneumatic tire development was a welcome improvement. But now, startups and industry veterans alike are working to create airless tires that still offer the flexibility of traditional pneumatic tires.

For the past five years, Hankook has been perfecting their “non-pneumatic tires,” also called NPT. Their latest version, the iFlex, is made to fit existing wheels (no retrofitting needed) and they are manufactured with eco-friendly, easily recyclable materials.

Orange and black Hankook tires
Hankook iFlex tires

Michelin has been working on their own version of the airless tire since 2005. Called the “Tweel,” these tires are, “a solid hub, flexible polyurethane spokes, and an outer band of tread. Practically, the inner spokes absorb the force from the road while driving, similar to pneumatic tires. For more variety, ‘tweels’ can be manufactured with alternate spoke tension, depending on desired handling performance.”

But while airless tires have their strengths—less hydroplaning, no risk of puncture or air loss—we haven’t seen them flood the market yet because, as Digital Trends explains, developers haven’t been able to reduce the intense vibrations enough so as to be palatable to drivers.

Past attempts at airless tires have resulted in extreme passenger discomfort.

Square Tires

What if wheels weren’t round? The question sounds like a riddle, or maybe like something a precocious child might ask, but thanks to Shark Tank they actually exist (in limited capacities). You won’t be able to get a square tire for your car any time soon, as Shark Wheel currently manufactures their patented square wheel only for skate boards. But the technology is exciting.

Shark Wheel's square wheels for skateboard
Shark Wheel’s square skateboard wheels

From Shark Wheel: “The design is the perfect intersection between a cube and a sphere. It looks like a square or cube rolling from the side/45 degree angle, but from the rear view looks like a snake or three-dimensional sine wave in motion.” Shark Wheel promises a perfectly smooth ride that is faster and has “more slide control, and better grip through rain and rough terrains.”

The company’s next moves, according to ABC 7, will be luggage, scooters, and strollers.

In-Tire Technology

Bridgestone has been developing their Contact Area Information Sensing (CAIS) system since 2011, and last month, in Japan, they announced it’s finally market-ready. The tires have sensors that monitor the road surface and communicates the information to the driver in real time.

And Just for Fun

Lexus created tires out of solid ice. The project, which happened in London, took three months to complete. An ice sculptor and the car manufacturer teamed up to create perfectly fitting ice tires for Lexus’ new NX crossover vehicle. The car had to be deep-frozen for five days, then once the tires were in place, a driver took it for a spin on ice. The purpose doesn’t go beyond marketing and proving “that anything is possible with the right combination of desire, skill and dedication,” but it looks really cool.

Lexus ice tires (image courtesy of Motor Trend)
Lexus ice tires (image courtesy of Motor Trend)