Aside from trotting out a new tread pattern every year or so, you might think there's not a lot manufacturers could do to improve the humble car tire. But advances in materials, sensors and manufacturing techniques are opening up new possibilities. Michelin is exploring this potential with its Vision concept tire that is airless, 3D printed, equipped with sensors, biodegradable, and not just a tire, but a tire and wheel in one.
Unveiled at a global symposium on urban mobility challenges it hosted this week in Montreal, Canada, Michelin's Vision tire is constructed using 3D printing technology. This enables an airless interior architecture that mimics alveolar structures (such as the air sacs of the lungs) that is solid in the center and more flexible on the outside, resulting in a tire that is immune to blowouts or going flat.
The core of the tire, which also functions as a wheel and can be reused, would be made from organic materials that are bio-sourced and biodegradable. 3D printing allows the amount of rubber tread applied on the outside of the tire to be optimized to meet the specific needs of the driver while keeping the amount of rubber required to a minimum – and the tread can even be topped up, or "recharged," when it wears down or the driver is headed for different road conditions.
Although the Vision's tread would still be made mostly of rubber, Michelin is envisioning the day when materials such as straw or wood chips could be used to make butadiene, a key ingredient in making synthetic rubber today.
The condition of the tires would also be monitored in real time using embedded sensors. The owner would receive information about the tire's condition and possibly use an accompanying app to make an appointment to change the tread for a particular use, like going skiing.
Michelin isn't saying when any of these innovations will be implemented, let alone when the Vision might be available for purchase, but Mostapha El-Oulhani, the designer who headed the Vision Project, said the promise of the concept tire is within reach.
"Given how we developed it, the Vision concept tire is a showcase of our expertise as well as a promise of the future," says El-Oulhani. "We wanted the Vision to be realistic since no purpose is served by designing objects or services that we know pertinently are unrealistic."