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Re-inventing the wheel - (well, the tyre to be precise)

Re-inventing the wheel - (well, the tyre to be precise)

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The invention of the wheel started us on a long road, covered by rubber, air-filled tyres; but, is the tyre, quite literally, about to come to the end of the road?

Where would we be without the wheel?

Though the wheel began in the form of the potters wheel around 3500BC it took ‘til somewhere around the sixth to fourth centuries BC for some very bright spark in Greece to come up with the wheelbarrow and the wheel has been transporting us wherever we want to go since, but are the days of a misspent youth, burning rubber, about to come to an end?

A number of ancient stone wheels


Since the dawn of the motoring age, cars, vans, lorries and almost every other mechanised wheeled vehicle has ridden on air-filled rubber, or pneumatic tyres as they are known.

This cushion of air plays a major part in giving a car a smooth and softer ride over a rough road and without it the vehicle, and its occupants or indeed a bike rider, would be shaken to bits.

Black and white photo of old car with a broken wheel

Now Michelin wants to turn more than a century of tradition upside down, tear up the rule book and put us on airless, rubberless tyres and if you’re asking why the answer is quite simple – safety, energy efficiency and making motoring green.

It has just unveiled a prototype design it’s working on in conjunction with General Motors and which it hopes to have on production cars within the next five years.

Called Uptis (Unique Puncture-Proof Tyre System), Michelin says it will eliminate the nuisance of a puncture and the danger of a high-speed blow out, it will make vehicles much more fuel efficient, which in the coming age of electric mobility this will be an ever more important feature of a car, and it will protect the environment from the quite incredible number of tyres which are scrapped every year due to wear or damage.

Michelin Uptis wheel and tyre combined


The figures behind Uptis are mind-bending.

Roughly one fifth, 20%, of the energy developed by the engine is absorbed by the tyres. The power has to overcome their rolling resistance, the friction between the rubber and the road, and the heat generated in the tyre takes energy that could otherwise be used just for pushing the car forward. If a new generation of a car could deliver 20% better fuel economy than its predecessor it would be hailed as a real breakthrough – and Michelin says Uptis has the potential to produce something approaching that.

And it’s not just the amount of energy used when the vehicle’s being driven. Using its own figures and extrapolated globally, Michelin reckons 200 million tyres are scrapped prematurely every year because of punctures, other damage or wear caused by being inflated to the wrong air pressure.

If 200 million tyres a year are being scrapped that means 200 million are being made to replace them, each one taking natural resources and energy to make and deliver to the point of sale.

How does Uptis work?

Well, 15 years ago Michelin began developing a concept it called ‘the tweel’, tyre and wheel combined, where the spokes carry the weight. That worked to a point, but Uptis goes many stages further and is entirely suitable for mainstream family cars thanks to its structure and the materials it’s made from. It has a composite rubber and proprietary, high-strength resin embedded fiberglass structure around an aluminium wheel.

They key to its commercial success is making sure it provides the same grip and ride comfort as a current tyre and Michelin says that drivers probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. They say it’s comparable to the ride given by one of today’s run-flat tyres which have reinforced sidewalls to take the weight of the car after a puncture.

It is widely accepted that the age of electrified, possibly self-driving and certainly more web-connected cars will bring with it completely new technology and designs. Well, this is one of them…and it could be on cars by 2024.

Red GM car driving on Uptis tyre/wheel