Tomorrow's tires; as "intelligent" as the cars using them
Tires will be equipped with sensors able to furnish information on performance and road conditions. Meanwhile, on safety, bar codes and Rfid tags will make them traceable and fake-proof
Tires are probably among the most familiar objects on the globe and yet, more often than not, we do not give them the attention they deserve: according to Police reports, a rising number of vehicles circulate with underinflated tires or worn-out treads.
Although, at a glance, not much seems to have changed, unless we consider the widespread diffusion of low-profiles, modern tires have come a long way from their early days, reaching levels of efficiency and structural complexities inconceivable just a few decades ago.
We all know the crucial role played by our tires, the means through which the power developed by the engine and the braking system is transferred to the ground; their behaviour under the pressure of lateral forces allows us to turn corners, and when travelling over long distances our comfort greatly depends on the quality of our tires. All this occurs through a footprint no larger than the palm of one’s hand.
Now the question is: how will such hi-tech items evolve even further?
Let us start by saying that the current market growth, driven by a growing demand for cars, will likely be sustained also in the future: reliable forecasts, in fact, speak of a demand that in 2017 reached 2,24 billion tires with an annual growth of 3,4%, and is expected to bring the total sales to 2,65 billion items by 2025.
The current scenario looks quite positive, though not spectacular, and a number of promising areas and technologies, bound to grow more than others, can already be detected.
The relentless push on hi-tech contents is driven mainly by consolidated manufacturers, able as they are to try new things and experiment with new ideas, in an effort to be different from the newest players on the market, specialized in offering low-cost tires.
Smithers Rapra, a research company, identified 4 key areas in which new technologies will, during the next five years, enhance efficiency, safety and driving comfort.
Quick design through computer simulation
Research & Development are areas in which the ever-increasing diffusion of modelling and computer simulation will speed up the development of new tires. The relentless introduction of new materials and compound formulation will also be very important.
The greater computing power, available now at reasonable costs, are already bringing great benefits in tire modelling and simulation. This allows companies to focus on the "Magic Triangle" optimizing traction, wear resistance and energy efficiency.
All of this means a substantial time saving: the team that designed Pirelli’s P Zero Trofeo R, which allowed a Lamborghini Huracán to set the new lap record at the Nürburgring, needed only 3 months to develop this ground-breaking tire, thanks to the intensive use of computers and telemetry data.
Computerized modelling/simulation is expected to be increasingly used to investigate the thermal behaviour of tires, an area previously overlooked due to the many difficulties it presents.
Furthermore, programmers will be engaged in studying the interactions between fillers and elastomers, in optimizing rolling resistance even further (increasingly crucial, given the strict emission regulations), as well as reducing rolling noise.
Branded for life
Traceability, in a quest to fight against counterfeiting thus reducing safety hazards, will be increasingly important. Traceability should be a main concern also among increasingly globalized suppliers, and will acquire greater priority. New hybrid labels are particularly promising, not to mention cost-effective, combining barcodes with Rfid tags. Thanks to new and advanced materials and production processes it is now possible to combine the advantages of barcodes and Rfid tags into a single label able to resists heat and vulcanization pressure.
Industry 4.0, which received ample coverage by Autopromotec and Pneurama, will also rapidly affect tire production. Pirelli has been working on it for some time, relying on the precious collaboration of prestigious universities, and is busy upgrading its facilities in South America, starting from the one in Feira de Santana, Brazil. Bridgestone has already installed a high-precision assembly line called Examination in its plant in Hikone, Japan, and will integrate it also in the planned expansion of its Tatanbaya factory in Hungary. This platform reduces direct human activity in tire production thanks to artificial intelligence, able to perfectly position the various components of the tire, improving the uniformity of production by at least 15%. Furthermore, an extensive use of X-rays to inspect tires is also expected, especially on industrial tires. The owner of this technology, Mensac, is preparing a machine visual technology software to automate image analysis minimizing errors resulting from fatigue, normal when an operator is asked to view many similar images in a very short time.
Smart tires will be even smarter
Electronic gadgets and systems are created on a daily basis, hence the need to integrate our vehicles’ tires in these systems. If Rfid tags are a first step, the goal is to pass from "passive" to the dynamic information given by sensors able to supply real-time information on tire performance and road conditions. The added value of the data thus collected will greatly contribute to company’s market positioning and profitability.
This trend will likely be “augmented” by another potentially disruptive one: autonomous driving. On-board devices, in this case, will lack much of the intuition and sensitivity of human drivers and therefore intelligent tires will play a vital role in safety. It is expected that fully autonomous vehicles (Sae level 5) will carry more than 25 sensors and Smithers Rapra projections speak of about 5 million autonomous road vehicles as early as 2026 and a further 30 million by 2030. Tire sensors, though, will be already available starting with level 3 autonomous vehicles, worth about $ 500 million in 2016 but expected to reach about 22 billion by 2021, as vehicles with this degree of automation will number in the region of 2.5 million.
It is worth, at this point, mentioning an experiment performed by Duke University using easily printable carbon nanotubes even on flexible surfaces. By submitting them to an electric potential difference, an electric field is created between them. The tire casing and its tread interfere with this field and this interference also depends on the thickness of the material: by measuring it, you can understand the thickness of the tread with a sub-millimetre precision.
The Bridgestone Cais system - Contact area information sensing – uses several sensors, able to detect the conditions of the road surface, tire deformation through corners (and therefore the centrifugal force) and tread wear with a system that measures it based on changes in the radial acceleration of the tread.