Monday, 6 January 2014

Airless tyres are coming to your fleet


Airless tyres are coming to your fleet and why that’s a good thing

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Are we set to go back to the early days of motoring with the arrival of tyres that do without air? The airless tyre is set to make a revival thanks to Bridgestone, though they are by no means the first to try to reinvent the wheel, or at least the tyre.

Thankfully, those early horseless carriages and their solid wheels derived from horse-drawn carriages are a long way both historically and technologically from the new crop of air-free tyres.

What Bridgestone is working on, along with a number of other companies, is a tyre that looks and behaves like the ones we’re used to but without the potential to deflate. Bridgestone calls this the Air Free Concept Tyre.

This has a number of benefits, including the safety aspect that an airless tyre cannot burst in the way a standard pneumatic tyre can.

This means no dangerous blow-outs, no changing a wheel on the hard shoulder of a motorway and no need to carry a spare wheel in the first place.
Flat atmosphere

We’ve been here before, and recently, with run-flat tyres, but they are still an inflated tyre with all the attendant problems. The only difference is run-flat tyres have an incredibly stiff sidewall that prevents the carcass from collapsing so the tyre can stay on the rim and allow the driver to guide the car to a safe halt.

As we’ve seen with run-flat tyres, there are other problems with them, notably the appalling ride quality they impose on any car they are fitted to.

Don’t believe me? Try a first generation BMW 1 Series with and without run-flat tyres. The difference is night and day and run-flat tyres ruin what is otherwise a very appealing small hatch with great driving dynamics.

Run-flats have been one of the few major developments in tyre technology the general public has been aware. Ever since Dunlop created the first pneumatic bicycle tyre back in 1888, we’ve been used to much the same look and style of tyre, with only changes from crossply design to radial tyres and some updates in tread pattern and longevity to pique the public interest ever since.

All hot air?

Of course, tyre technology is one of the fastest moving, both literally and technically, areas of automotive design. It is also one of the areas of greatest interest to fleet managers and company drivers when it comes to running costs.

A new set of tyres for a typical company car such as a Ford Focus can easily cost £400. On a car that covers 20,000 miles per annum, that could easily mean £400 per year spent on new rubber.

An airless tyre will not reduce that replacement period with a longer window of safe use for a tyre as that is down to the rubber compound used. This is a balancing act of longevity versus grip, noise, rolling resistance and wet weather ability, which is one of the most challenging pieces of design work in the automotive sector.

What an airless tyre can offer fleets is a way to avoid the cost of a replacement tyre when a pneumatic one is headed for the recycling pile. If there’s no air in the tyre, it cannot deflate or be punctured.

Yes, the rubber outer of an airless tyre can be penetrated and there has to be a judgement on whether that renders the tyre unsafe or not, but this is a simple check of the tread rather than assessing whether or not there is a danger of a blow-out.

Bridgestone’s approach is to replace the pressurised air in a tyre with thermoplastic spokes that support the outer tyre. Even if the tyre is damaged, perhaps on a pothole, these spokes will continue to support the tyre.

Should the Bridgestone tyre be damaged beyond use, the company says its new design of airless tyre is more easily recycled than existing tyre designed, so it also has less of an environmental impact.

Battleground benefits

Of equal interest to fleet users will be the Bridgestone Air Free Concept Tyre’s purpose-designed low rolling resistance. This helps cut carbon dioxide emissions, which in turn means lower Company Car Tax for you and me.

There are other applications for airless tyres that are somewhat outside of the usual company car concerns. As with many new technologies, money from governments looking at ways to improve their military capabilities is also driving research.

When a puncture can mean the difference between life and death in a battle situation, a tyre that cannot be punctured by a roadside bomb or bullet is a great idea. This is why so many firms are working on this idea, such as the Michelin Tweel and that of Resilient Technologies in the USA.

As with many military projects, the spin-off benefits will filter down to mainstream drivers sooner or later. In the case of airless tyres, this should be earlier and Bridgestone has hinted it intends to have working prototypes of its Air Free Concept Tyre on the road and in development in the first half of 2014.
Coming to fleets from 2017?

So, when are we likely to see a full production airless tyre on sale and on our company cars? That’s a tougher question to answer than simply building the tyre as there are legislative hurdles to be overcome through testing.

There is also the small point of convincing car companies that an airless tyre is a good idea for them to fit to their cars. Without an original fitment agreement, it will be a struggle to sell airless tyres to customers and fleets tend to go with an original equipment replacement.

Car companies will also want to test any of its cars with airless tyres to ensure they don’t suffer the same negative reception BMW experienced with the first generation of 1 Series.

So, the Smart money suggests an airless tyre will not be on the market before 2017. However, when this technology does arrive, it could well consign to the history bin the tyres we’re so used to today.

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