Group Michelin's recent announcement that a maintenance-free, non-pneumatic tire/wheel system could be market-ready as an original equipment fitment option as soon as 2024 for General Motors Co. should come as no surprise to most industry observers.
Ever since the first viable pneumatic tires were produced in the late 1880s, it seems as if tire manufacturers everywhere have been trying to develop technology that takes a non-pneumatic tire to the mainstream.
In fact, the technology that Michelin and GM heralded during the recent Movin'On event in Montreal — the Uptis, or "Unique Punctureproof Tire System" — is based on the fundamentals of Michelin's Tweel tire/wheel product that was first introduced 14 years ago, at the 2005 Detroit Auto Show, according to Eric Vinesse, Michelin executive vice president, research and development.
It's taken that long — some might argue that the process has been fast-tracked given the level of complexity of the product — for the technology to expand beyond low-speed applications on vehicles like lawn tractors or skid-steers that currently use the Tweel.
While the Uptis uses resin-reinforced fiberglass spokes as load-bearing elements like the Tweel, the materials, production process and architecture of the Uptis spoke design are new, according to Michelin. The spokes are molded onto an aluminum cylinder, and the rubber tread is molded onto the circular platform that attaches to the end of the spokes. This assembly is then bolted to an aluminum wheel cover/mounting plate that contains the wheel hub.
Michelin and GM have entered into a joint research agreement calling for the companies to develop and validate the Uptis prototype further. The goal is to introduce Uptis on passenger models as early as 2024.
Consider that for a second. Auto makers already are starting to roll out their 2020 models. That means the airless tire could be part of the passenger tire market in less than 48 months.
Michelin and GM have been testing the prototype on vehicles such as the Chevrolet Bolt EV. They will initiate testing of Uptis on a fleet of Bolt EV vehicles in Michigan.
The companies have been granted permission to test vehicles with the Uptis tire/wheel on public roads in South Carolina and are seeking permission from other states as well, including Michigan, California, Georgia and North Carolina. Permission is necessary since Uptis is not yet considered a legal road-going product.
According to Michelin, the airless aspect of the Uptis means drivers of passenger vehicles feel safer on the road, and operators of passenger vehicle fleets will see minimized downtime and improved efficiency. Michelin also pointed out that the technology won't be exclusive to GM products, leaving the possibility that other car makers, both domestic and foreign, could embrace the concept.
The mainstream media picked up the announcement, introducing the concept to the broader consumer base. Chances are, customers have asked you about it in your dealership.
What does this mean for tire dealers? Could this radicalize the industry, as the radial tire did decades ago? Or could it be a niche product, as the Tweel is today?
Our advice: Don't throw away your tire gauges just yet.