New buyers want to kick the tires when they’re seeking out a new ride. We’ve all heard the tire company slogan “there’s a lot riding on your tires” but they are typically taken for granted and misunderstood. Tires have come a long way since the thin, fragile varieties sported by the earliest automobiles. Today’s tires are built to withstand all types of weather and road conditions and new developments are transcending the very concept of tire. In the past year, the world has been introduced to self-inflating and even airless tires.
A brief early history
The word tire comes from craftsmen tying wheel segments of iron and steel around the wooden wheels of carts and wagons. In 1839, Charles Goodyear developed vulcanised rubber as a tire cushion by adding sulphur to melted latex derived from Amazonian tree sap. Robert Thompson invented the pneumatic tire in 1846 and after rims were introduced, Michelin made the first pneumatic tire for an auto in 1895. Many tire companies began to appear by the beginning of the twentieth century, improving on the basic design by making them sturdier, with better traction and fuel efficiency. The past century has seen continuous development in tire technology, from synthetic rubber to steel-belted radial suspension.
Advances in tire materials and technologies have enabled optimal performance and manufacturability, which is ever evolving. A worldwide shortage of natural rubber is a major concern for today’s tire manufacturers, necessitating increased usage of synthetic rubber or other alternatives. Vehicles have been rolling along just fine on cushions of air encased in rubber but recent innovations in airless tire technology seem poised to usher in a paradigm shift.
Michelin first announced the Tweel in 2005, combining the words “tire” and “wheel” in name and concept. This invention rejects the traditional wheel hub assembly in favour of mounting a solid inner hub directly to the axle. Flexible spokes form a honeycomb-style web to replace the air pressure of pneumatic tires, making it look like a futurist bicycle wheel. Both Michelin and Brigestone’s airless tires are in the development stages but off-road vehicle specialist Polaris has developed their own version that is already in use by the U.S. military – after extensive tests such as running them over train spikes and firing at them with heavy artillery. Polaris’ airless tires run silently and the open design prevents dirt, branches, and rocks from getting stuck inside. The absorbing qualities of the spokes can make smoother and safer rides. They won’t hit the off-road market till at least next year and their eventual usage on the average automobile remains uncertain.
Anyone who has become a mechanic is used to seeing clients coming in with dangerously inadequate tire pressure. The Goodyear self-inflating tire, which was named one of Time Magazine’s best inventions of 2012, could help change that. An internal pressure regulator opens to allow air to flow into a pumping tube, which is squeezed through an inlet valve as the wheel turns until the optimal level is reached – all without the driver realizing anything was wrong. While it’s safe to say that tires will continue to need periodic maintenance, such recent changes in technology should be of importance to anyone in mechanic school.