Are airless tyres the future?

16 Sep 2014  Written By: Beaurepaires

Airless tyres are the latest innovation in the tyre industry, with several new prototypes emerging over the last few years. Are they really too good to be true?

If you’ve been keeping up-to-date with automotive developments in recent years, you may or may not have heard of a nifty little innovation known as the ‘airless tyre.’ This invention first came to light in the public sphere in the early ‘00s and was widely touted as the next big game changer in the tyre industry. But while major international tyre companies such as Bridgestone and Michelin have dabbled in airless tyre manufacture in the past, the hype around this revolutionary invention seemed to have lagged slightly when its various incarnations failed to make it to mass production. So are airless tyres really still set to take the tyre world by storm? Or are we still a long way away from seeing these intriguing new models on Australian roads?

What is an airless tyre?

An airless (or non-pneumatic) tyre is exactly what it sounds like – a tyre that, unlike the traditional pneumatic tyre, does not use a bladder filled with compressed air. However, not all airless tyres are created alike; their concepts and constructions have varied between different tyre manufacturers over the years. The Bridgestone and Michelin versions feature a thin rubber tread supported by flexible polyurethane or thermoplastic spokes, while the heavy-duty new Polaris model favours a “honeycomb” web of hexagon-shaped partitioned rubber.

What are the advantages and disadvantages?

It’s not difficult to see why the concept of an airless tyre was so eagerly heralded and anticipated by the tyre industry. The benefits of having mass produced, fully functioning airless tyres would be numerous. No longer would drivers have to suffer the dreaded flat tyre, which inevitably tends to occur when you’re driving in the middle of nowhere. Air pressure problems, which affect the traction of pneumatic tyres and the vehicle’s fuel consumption, would also be a thing of the past. And because airless tyres don’t get flats, they’re replaced less often, which is overall more cost-effective for drivers.

Then, there are the environmental benefits to consider. Airless tyres are designed to be maintenance free and more durable, long-lasting and environmentally friendly than pneumatic tyres. The Bridgestone prototype, for example, was designed to be 100% recyclable. If such a model reached mass production, it would certainly help to cut down on the ever mounting pile of old and used tyres dumped all over the world.

Of course, such a revolutionary invention is bound to come with some setbacks, and the airless tyre has had its share of those. Initial test drives of the various manufacturer versions revealed problems with the airless tyres overheating and generating considerable noise at higher speeds. Michelin also noted that the flexibility of their airless tyre contributed to greater friction.

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Airless tyres in the past and present

As aforementioned, several airless tyre prototypes have been launched and undergone various stages of development over the last decade. French tyre manufacturer Michelin were the first on the ball, when they famously introduced the ‘Tweel’ (‘tyre’ and ‘wheel’ combined) in 2005. Constructed from a solid inner hub and surrounded by polyurethane spokes, the Tweel caused great sensation in the international tyre industry. TIME magazine even named the Tweel as one of their Best Inventions of the year. However, Michelin emphasized that the Tweel was still a concept being heavily tested and would likely not be seen on the roads until 2020.

Bridgestone were the next to produce their own version of the airless tyre in 2011. This ‘Air Free Concept Tyre’ features a structure similar to that of the Tweel, with Bridgestone using thermoplastic resin spokes and a thin rubber tread to create a fully recyclable tyre. This airless tyre has previously only been tested on golf carts and is clearly also a long way away from appearing in your local tyre dealership. However, the second generation Air Free Concept Tyre was showcased recently at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show, proving that Bridgestone are still working hard on perfecting their model.

The latest edition of the airless tyre was developed by US manufacturer Polaris. Their ‘Terrain Armour’ tyre differs slightly in looks and construction from the Michelin and Bridgestone models, instead featuring a sturdy but flexible honeycomb rubber mesh design. When tested in an extensive military simulation in late 2012, the Terrain Armour’s results were extremely positive – Polaris reported that the tyres withstood both running over a railroad spike and being directly shot at with .50 calibre bullets, and could still drive for 1600km afterwards.

Polaris’s Terrain Armour tyres are now on sale, as of December 2013, but they are currently only being offered in limited quantities with the impressively enormous Polaris Sportsman WV850 H.O. While you probably won’t see this military ATV-inspired vehicle on your daily commute to work, the fact that Polaris’s Terrain Armour tyres are actually available for purchase at the present signals exciting things for the future of airless tyres.

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To air or not to air?

There’s no doubt that it’ll be a good few years yet before airless tyres start popping up on our roads. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to track the progress of this amazing invention. If or when airless tyres do make it to mass production, the environmental and cost benefits would revolutionise the tyre industry as we know it.  

For those of us who unfortunately aren’t currently in possession of bullet-proof airless car tyres, it’s important to get our ordinary air-filled car tyres checked regularly to ensure that they’re in good working order. If you need to replace your car tyres, be sure to drop into your local Beaurepaires store to see our extensive collection of tyres for cars, 4WDs, light commercial vehicles, trucks, and many more. Our friendly and experienced tyre technicians will be more than happy to help you!