AKRON (Jan. 31, 2005) — Group Michelin's efforts to develop a non-pneumatic tire/wheel system should seize the attention of tire dealers and others involved in the sale and servicing of tires and wheels.
Should it succeed in creating a practical, non-pneumatic system for automotive and/or truck applications, it would change the tire industry and tire retailing forever.
Tire engineers have dreamed about developing airless tires almost from the day the pneumatic tire was invented over a century ago. But it wasn't until Michelin's recent unveiling of two non-pneumatic tire and wheel concepts—the Tweel and the Airless—that such products seemed even remotely conceivable.
The Tweel features a network of polyurethane spokes fused to a wheel hub and a circular outer flat rim that replaces the casing, beads and sidewall structures of a conventional tire. Attached to the outer surface is an underlying reinforcing belt covered with a flat rubber tread.
The Airless uses a series of polymeric rings arranged radially around a wheel hub, to which is attached a reinforcing belt/tread package.
The invention of the Tweel became possible due to advances in materials development and engineering computing power, allowing Michelin engineers to mold an elastic wheel that offers many of the same performance characteristics as those of a conventional pneumatic tire.
What are the implications for tire dealers should non-pneumatic tire/wheel systems find widespread commercial success? They're profound and would impact dealers at the very heart of their business operations.
Because Tweel-type units would be manufactured perfectly round, they would require no tire-to-wheel mounting or balancing, making them basically a bolt-on application.
Since the systems contain no air, they no longer would require puncture repairs. Nor would there be a need for tire pressure monitoring systems.
The end result is that many of the services dealers now perform regularly on pneumatic tires—and bank on to nudge profits—would be changed or eliminated.
On the upside, Tweel-type tire/wheels could be retreaded relatively easily, providing a new service for dealers to offer, though undoubtedly some new equipment and outlay of capital would be required.
Michelin researchers admit the development of Tweel-type tires is still in its infancy and that the introduction of a viable non-pneumatic automotive tire/wheel system is at least 10 to 15 years away. So tire dealers have little reason to worry…just yet.
Still, it's a concept that bears watching. There's little doubt that one day motorists will be riding on airless tires. Just how tire dealers will fit into that equation—there's the rub.