Automakers and tire companies have been trying to deliver airless tires for decades. While it would be great to not suffer from flats, the challenges of coming up with something that both grips and doesn’t have air inside has proven more challenging than people thought at first. But what if it’s not as hard as the tire companies think? Surely they’d like to keep selling tires, right? The Driven Media YouTube channel decided to put this question to the test with their own set of DIY airless tires.
How did they do it? Well, they started with a set of simple 14″ steel wheels and removed the tires from them. They replaced the tires with short segments of pipe, which can deform a bit and allow for a contact patch to form. This is important, because if you’re only touching the road in a tiny, tiny spot, you won’t get traction. But there were gaps between the big pipes, so they put in some smaller pipe segments to flatten things out. Finally, they put tire tread along the outside.
The whole thing was held together with bolts and nuts. Lots of them. Over 300, in fact! It wasn’t free, but they did pay about £300 per wheel (almost $400). That sounds steep, but if it works well, you wouldn’t have to buy more tires as often, so it could be a good tradeoff. If they last.
They started the testing with regular driving speeds. While they tires didn’t fly apart, they did make for a lot of roughness and noise. After just a little driving, some of the bolts started working their way loose and things got moved out of place. But they didn’t come apart completely, and nobody died! So, how bad could they be?
So, the next test was to drive over a bed of nails. Because the tires don’t use air, puncturing them really doesn’t do anything bad to them. Even at faster speeds, nothing bad happened running over a bunch of nails, so one of the chief benefits of airless tires was a pass. They also tested them on normal speeds, speed bumps, grass, and even pot holes (and yes, we know what pot holes are in the States).
They survived the streets, but if they decided to push it again on the track, could they make the wheels fall apart? At higher speeds, the problems with their design became apparent. Balance issues were the first problem, and then the tires started slipping apart during hard turns at speed, but somehow coming back together. The rubber stretched, but survived. It was even able to survive drifting.
A Word Of Warning About DIY Airless Tires
If the rough ride and awful noise wasn’t enough, let’s keep in mind that these guys used a racing vehicle with safety gear. Had they suffered a massive failure, they would have been OK. It should go without saying that you wouldn’t want to actually do this to your car at home. You can expect failure to occur, and there’s no telling how bad it could be when that happens. Please, don’t do this at home!
Why Aren’t Tire Companies Doing Better?
After decades of struggle, they actually are doing better.
Like the guys in the video, early designs weren’t suitable for high speeds, but they were useful for low-speed off-road, military, and utility equipment. So, “tweels” have been in use. But, at higher speeds, problems multiplied, and they weren’t suited to mass production for road vehicles.
But as I pointed out in another article, things are getting closer. The media has had the opportunity to test newer designs that can actually be like normal, boring tires at any speed. They’re so confident, in fact, that they’ve announced they’re going to start including them with new GM vehicles starting in 2024.
But Really, Why Not Use Normal Tires?
Yes, tires have disadvantages. You can get flats, blowouts, and you have to shell out your hard-earned cash for a whole set of tires once the tread gets worn down a bit. But, they also tend to get us from point A to point B fairly well on most days, right?
Not so much. When you consider the environmental impacts of tires, they don’t look nearly as good. Tweels last three times longer than traditional tires, likely because they flex a lot less and can’t accumulate as much damage. They also seem to be able to support much deeper tread, so you’ll get more tread life. There’s also the possibility of getting new tread put on, or even 3D-printed onto tweels, so you won’t have to throw the whole assembly out when tread is running low.
This means that there will be a lot less tire waste. Instead of putting tons and tons of tires in piles, burning them, or burying them, we can just avoid needing so many of them. Michelin estimates a 66% reduction in waste, and that’s assuming we don’t retread them or print new tread.
Why Can’t I Buy Some?
While it’s certainly tempting to build your own DIY airless tires, they really are on the way. Michelin’s Uptis tires (or “Unique Puncture-proof Tire System”) are already in final testing on GM vehicles. They’ll probably only come out on new cars at first, but as they get cheaper and go into mass production, they’ll come available from tire shops to put on your existing car.
“General Motors is excited about the possibilities that Uptis presents, and we are thrilled to collaborate with Michelin on this breakthrough technology,” said Steve Kiefer, senior vice president, global purchasing and supply chain, General Motors. “Uptis is an ideal fit for propelling the automotive industry into the future and a great example of how our customers benefit when we collaborate and innovate with our supplier partners.”
So really, don’t mess around with DIY airless tires. Not only is it not worth the risk, but safe and durable airless tires really are coming this decade. It would probably be a good idea to wait for something safer.
Featured image by Driven Media, YouTube featured image.
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