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03/09/2019
Airless tires in the limelight

Airless tires have been on sale for years but only for special vehicles. Michelin and General Motors have teamed up to bring airless tires to the general public with Uptis getting a foothold in a sector expected to expand steadily

Nicodemo Angì

Strictly speaking, airless tires should not even be called that, however, their function is to serve as a link between the road and the vehicle. Managing acceleration, braking, G-forces, besides draining water, snow and mud, all of this while maintaining adequate comfort, is anything but simple. Not to mention durability, low noise levels and low friction losses. The industry has always responded to these conflicting needs with air (or nitrogen) inflated tires, and continues to do so. Hence, why are Michelin and GM thinking to change the game by experimenting with gas-free tires? Answers differ, but by and large all are linked to the evolution of mobility.

 

No puncture, less attention?

No sooner than 2024, the Uptis, an acronym for Unique Puncture-proof Tire System, should be ready for mass marketing. This means that the prototype on display at the Movin'On Summit, an event dedicated to sustainable mobility, that took place in Montreal in early June, could be quite different from the actual production “tires”. In any case, the press release was explicit in listing the advantages of Uptis' airless quality. Drivers will feel safer because punctures will be a thing of the past, fleet managers will greatly reduce downtime due to punctures as well as maintenance time and expenses, which will be close to zero.

Noteworthy too, the savings generated by fewer replacements due to damage from incorrect inflation or puncture and, as a consequence, a reduction of raw materials used, as the Uptis would eliminate the need for spare tires.

 

The march towards Vision

Despite being designed for the needs of today’s cars, the Uptis prototype is projected towards a new kind of mobility. Tomorrow's fleet managers will require tires that need no maintenance to maximise the operational capabilities of autonomous and electric cars. Likewise, we can expect private individuals to be keen on zero maintenance and zero risk of punctures: electric cars promise very low maintenance needs and tires will simply have to adapt. The same applies to autonomous family vehicles: commuting from home to school with children on board without the risk of a puncture or driving around town with an elderly person without a licence is certainly a bonus. The Michelin-GM partnership makes a lot of sense in this respect because the car manufacturer, committed to testing autonomous driving solutions, proposed the Bolt as a test-bed for the Uptis.

Uptis is the materialization of one of the founding ideas behind the Vision prototype, Airless, Connected, 3D-printed and 100% Sustainable. Uptis brings the Airless concept on the road while Michelin is working to integrate a "rechargeable" tread in the near future. At the same time, the company is developing other technologies (3D-Printed, Connected and Sustainable) on other tires: once consolidated, these will all be transferred into a single product.

 

 

Saving raw materials and the environment

Another pillar of the Vision concept, total sustainability, is partially present in Uptis, seeing its ability to reduce waste. Just think how many punctured tires are scrapped just because they have been driven for too long with very low pressure. However, waste can also be the direct result of irregular wear due to over or under inflation, which is impossible with Uptis. If, on the one hand, we have already mentioned the savings associated with not having to produce spare tires, it is also worth noting how dangers associated with bursting tires or stopping along the road to replace a flat tire are virtually eliminated. Michelin estimates that 200 million tires are prematurely scrapped worldwide for these reasons.

General Motors is the first OE manufacturer with a joint research and development agreement with Michelin to promote Uptis. The French manufacturer, on the other hand, is fully set on making the most of the opportunity to be first on the market created by this partnership, although other agreements (few to be honest) are being considered. It’s worth remembering that Michelin’s airless Tweel, designed for industrial applications, has been on the market for more than 10 years now, and the experience gained, despite the different characteristics involved, has been very useful in the creation of Uptis.

 

Future developments and comparisons

The joint Bolt Uptis trials are about to kick off in Michigan’s Milford area, but as yet, no decisions have been made as to whether these will be extended to other vehicles.

As for the differences with traditional tires, Michelin states that comfort is not diminished and performance-wise Uptis is comparable to a Run-Flat. The weight is declared to be approximately 22.5 kg (including the “wheel”), compared to the approximately 21 kg of a standard tire + wheel unit and the 23 kg of a Run-Flat. In any case, a car equipped with Uptis will still be lighter as it does not need TPMS, spare wheel and related accessories such as a jack, bolt wrench or car inflation kits in the absence of a spare wheel. The expected life of Uptis is the same as that of a standard tire that has not been replaced prematurely due to damage or uneven wear caused by incorrect inflation pressure.

The Airless structure includes composite rubber and resin-embedded fibreglass that sit between the outer edge of the tire and the light alloy wheel, while the tread will be designed together with the car manufacturers to guarantee adequate performance.

 

A promising market

Market forecasts are rather positive and this makes Michelin's decision to develop Uptis even more timely. A research by Market Research Future, projected to 2023, forecasts a significant growth in the demand for these tires  - there are talks of a 9% annual composite growth until 2023 - with North America dominating the market, although much depends on the evolution of the automotive market and mobility in general, issues we have been dealt with when talking about Uptis. The promised reduction of accidents caused by bursting tires will encourage future demand, and Europe is also expected to take an active role, in the wake of the regulations issued by the European Commission that will push towards the ease of use and safety. The Asia-Pacific market is also expected to expend strongly, driven by the growing number of automotive industries.

The research also talks about distribution channels: OEMs are expected to dominate the market, at least initially, seeing the considerable contribution made by manufacturers in achieving and maintaining safety standards. Several advantages, such as better service, easy fitment, durability and increased safety, suggest that, eventually, the aftermarket will also start selling them on a large scale increasing market demand in the coming years.

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