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Airless Tires May Find a Market for Self-Driving Cars & Robo Taxi Fleets

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【Summary】Japan’s Bridgestone Corp, a maker of “airless tires” is hoping the decade-old tire technology will find a market for autonomous vehicles and robo taxis. The ability to avoid flat tires is probably the biggest advantage for use on autonomous vehicles.

Eric Walz    Oct 25, 2019 8:00 AM PT
Airless Tires May Find a Market for Self-Driving Cars & Robo Taxi Fleets

Japan's Bridgestone Corp, a maker of "airless tires" is hoping the decade-old tire technology will find a market for autonomous vehicles and robo taxis. The launch of autonomous robot-taxis could boost demand for puncture-resistant tires, as the vehicles will be driven more than a conventional vehicle.

A typical vehicle is parked most of the time, whereas an autonomous vehicle used in a future commercial robo-taxi service might be in service considerably more, with little down time. 

Although airless tires underperform conventional tires in every aspect, they are exceptionally puncture resistant. The ability to avoid flat tires is probably the biggest advantage for use on autonomous vehicles.

"In the past, a car would be driven about 20% of the time and spend the other 80% in the garage," Atsushi Ueshima of Bridgestone said at the biennial Tokyo Motor Show on Thursday.

"In the age of shared, autonomous vehicles, it will be the opposite, and preventing breakdowns will be a top priority."

France's Michelin pioneered the airless technology, and debuted the first prototype in 2005 on a wheelchair. The commercial launch came in 2012, but uses have so far been mostly limited to specialized applications, such as ride-on lawnmowers and golf carts. Although the airless tire technology is suitable for construction machinery, where the chance of a puncture is much greater.

At the Tokyo Motor Show this week, Toyota Group's truck division Hino Motors Ltd displayed a vision of the future where electric, modular, people-to-parcel movers run on airless tires of its own design. Reuters reports that Toyota showed a hydrogen-powered concept car fitted with Sumitomo Rubber Industries prototypes at the previous event in 2017.

GM & Michelin to Test Airless Tires

Earlier this year, Michelin and General Motors announced a new generation of airless tire technology for passenger vehicles called the Michelin Uptis Prototype, which is an acronym for "Unique Puncture-proof Tire System." 

According to Michelin, the Uptis tire features improvements in architecture and composite materials, which enable the airless tire to bear the vehicle's weight at higher speeds. Michelin engineered an inner structure made of composite rubber and proprietary high-strength resin embedded fiberglass to support the vehicle's weight.  

The two companies also announced a joint research agreement under which the companies intend to validate the Uptis Prototype under real-world driving conditions, with the goal of introducing the Uptis tires on GM vehicles by 2024.

Testing is expected to start this year on the Chevy Bolt EV in Michigan.

For robo-taxis, Sumitomo Rubber's airless tire design includes a band of rubber encircling polymer spokes around an aluminum hub, which allows for electric drive motors to be fitted directly inside the wheel, opening up additional passenger space in the cabin or expanding the trunk area.

EV manufacturers also hope that airless tires will in the future weigh less than traditional tires, which can help extend the range of EVs by reducing the weight of the vehicle. However, reducing the weight of the airless tire has proved challenging.

Sumitomo says it has been able to reduce weight slightly by changing the shape of the polymer spokes, but the heft of the rubber tread still makes it a little heavier than current conventional tires. Another problem with airless tire tire technology is making them structurally stronger to support the weight of heavier vehicles.

Sumitomo has been able to increase the size of its prototypes over the past several years, but it is still far from making them big enough and strong enough for a bus or truck.

"There will definitely be demand for airless tires for commercial vehicles in the future, but making something than can support that weight is a really huge obstacle," Hiroshi Ohigashi, of Sumitomo Rubber, said at the motor show.


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