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A new technology from Michelin, the Tweel is an airless tire and wheel combination which provides the benefits of pneumatic radial tires by using flexible spokes which soak up road hazards.Richard Dole

I’ve been hearing about airless tires for years. Are any coming to the market any time soon? As someone who has had to change plenty of flat tires (why are there so many nails on the road?), the idea really appeals to me. I’ve had “run-flat” tires, but they’ve still needed to be replaced [about 50 to 100 kilometres] after they go flat.

Trevor, Pickering, Ont.

If you’re hoping to buy airless tires for your car, don’t hold your breath.

While several tire makers are working on airless tires, most companies wouldn’t say how close they are to hitting the roads beyond the test phase.

“We’re targeting something in the ballpark of the next five years to be able to get something to market,” said Jon Kimpel, president of tire solutions with Bridgestone Americas Inc., which has been working on airless tires for more than a decade.

Michelin, Bridgestone and Toyo Tire Corp. were the only companies to respond to requests about when we might see airless tires.

In January, Michelin started testing its airless tires prototype on DHL Express courier vans in Singapore, Michelin said in an email statement. By the end of the year, the tires will be used for 50 vans.

Since 2020, Michelin has run previous tests on roads in Las Vegas and Thailand, but it didn’t say when the tires could move past the prototype stage.

Airless tires are exactly as they sound. They have rubber treads, like normal tires, but the treads are mounted on a ring and supported by plastic or rubber spokes – which are exposed. Because airless tires are never filled with air, they can’t go flat.

“It is these spokes that replace the role of air in supporting a vehicle’s weight,” David Scheklesky of Toyo Tire Canada Inc. said in an e-mail.

Toyo, which started developing airless tires in 2006, said last year that it has not finalized the timing for launching its airless tires – which use carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic spokes – in Japan or other markets.

So what’s slowing the roll for airless tires? Cost, Scheklesky said.

“Since the production method is fundamentally different from that of pneumatic tires, a large investment in production facilities is required for production,” he said. Also, because airless tires aren’t close to production, governments have not yet established safety regulations.

Why airless?

The biggest advantages are no more flat tires or worrying about air pressure levels. Nor would a puncture mean your tires end up as waste before the end of their expected lifespan. You also wouldn’t need to carry a spare, Scheklesky said.

Airless tires could reduce fuel consumption because they would have lower rolling resistance – the friction between the tire and the road – than some tires now.

That could mean, for instance, that they could help electric vehicles achieve more range. They’re also more durable than regular tires and should have longer lifespans. With regular tires, if they’re not properly inflated, they wear faster. That wouldn’t be an issue with airless tires, Kimpel said.

But there are drawbacks. They’re heavier and more expensive than regular tires. Neither company could say exactly how much more expensive they could be.

“We anticipate that price to be higher than conventional tires – but the cost of ownership would be lower with air-free,” Kimpel said.

They’re also noisier on the road, “although work is being done to reduce this,” Scheklesky said.

Heat is also a concern.

“In a [regular] tire, the air helps to dissipate the heat generated by the tire rolling over the pavement,” Scheklesky said. “In airless tires, this is obviously not the case, so our engineers have to ensure the components of an airless tire can withstand the heat and other pressures placed on a tire.”

Transport trucks first?

Bridgestone’s Kimpel said its airless tires will likely be marketed first to fleets – particularly long-haul transport trucks.

“Long-haul trucks wouldn’t have to check tire pressure and there’d be less downtime caused by underinflated tires,” Kimpel said. So for fleets, there would be increased time on the road, longer tire life and reduced maintenance costs.

Potentially, airless tires on commercial trucks could have new treads applied when they wear out, Kimpel said.

“That tire will last longer – that’s a huge benefit when it comes to sustainability,” he said.

But Toyo’s Scheklesky doesn’t expect airless tires, if they eventually make it to the market, to completely replace regular tires any time soon.

“Research is continuing, but traditional tires will still be here to stay for quite some time,” he said.

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