Everyone Is Working on Non-pneumatic Rubber for Your Future Car

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
everyone is working on non pneumatic rubber for your future car

Airless tires are one of those things that crop up every few years, but they never seem to stick around long enough to become commonplace. Already, certain construction vehicles use flat-proof rubber, and tire manufacturers have been playing with airless systems for some time. For example, Hankook has the iFlex, its fifth attempt at non-pneumatic tires, and Goodyear has actually begun selling airless donuts on commercial lawnmowers. Michelin even has a 3D-printed round that it claims will last the lifetime of a vehicle.

Unfortunately, nobody seems able to come up with a solution that works at higher speeds. While they’re great at taking impacts, the existing designs aren’t so good at coping with high levels of heat. But it’s not for a lack of trying — there may even be a breakthrough just around the bend, especially since everyone seems so interested. Rolling resistance and weight are two of the electric car’s worst enemies. If an automaker could mitigate those issues effectively, that would be another leg up on the competition.

It’s an issue weighing heavy on the top minds at Toyota at the moment. The company’s recent concept EV, the Fine-Comfort Ride, came equipped with a set of experimental airless tires from Sumitomo Rubber Industries, boringly named the Smart Tyre Concept-A. Toyota’s theory is that non-pneumatic tires, consisting of a solid band of rubber encircling lightweight alloys, could eventually compensate for the weight of wheel-mounted electric motors.

The end result is better efficiency stemming from lessened rolling resistance and overall heft. However, the way Sumitomo tells it, the technology wouldn’t have to be limited to EVs. The company is approaching the airless-tire endeavor as a way to improve safety and free drivers from the plight of having to manage tire pressure. Sure, it’s focusing on the “mobility” angle and promoting the use of sustainable materials, because that’s what you do in 2017. But you could theoretically slap these babies on a 1993 GMC Sierra and burn all the gas you can afford.

But first, you’ll have to wait until they’re ready for market. According to Bloomberg, Sumitomo is only running them as test platforms on ultra-small Japanese kei cars and golf carts right now. So, exactly how long you’ll have to bide your time with ancient radials is up in the air. While Sumitomo intends to include some of the lessons learned in pursuit of non-pneumatic rubber on production tires within a few years, genuine airless tires aren’t anticipated until the latter half of the next decade. Wako Iwamura, head of the five-year airless-tire project at Sumitomo Rubber, said his personal goal is to have a commercial product ready by 2020 — though it wouldn’t be an all-weather application.

Currently, the concept tires weigh about the same as their aired counterparts, but Toyota’s chief engineer, Takao Sato, believes developments will eventually shave 11 pounds from each tire’s total weight by 2025. Interestingly, that’s just about the same time that most automakers plan to have fleet-wide electrification.

[Image: Toyota]

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3 of 23 comments
  • Redmondjp Redmondjp on Oct 31, 2017

    As any long-time reader of Popular Science or Popular Mechanics can attest, this effort has been going on since solid-rubber tires were first used on wagon carts. The Michelin Tweel comes to mind.

    • WildcatMatt WildcatMatt on Nov 16, 2017

      Tweel, wasn't he one of the antagonists from the Teddy Ruxpin cartoon?

  • THX1136 THX1136 on Nov 01, 2017

    One word: Polyglas

  • SCE to AUX I charge at home 99% of the time, on a Level 2 charger I installed myself in 2012 for my Leaf. My house is 1967, 150-Amp service, gas dryer and furnace; everything else is electric with no problems. I switched from gas HW to electric HW last year, when my 18-year-old tank finally failed.I charge at a for-pay station maybe a couple times a year.I don't travel more than an hour each way in my Ioniq 1 EV, so I don't deal much with public chargers. Despite a big electric rate increase this year, my car remains ridiculously cheap to operate.
  • ToolGuy 38:25 to 45:40 -- Let's all wait around for the stupid ugly helicopter. 😉The wheels and tires are cool, as in a) carbon fiber is a structural element not decoration and b) they have some sidewall.Also like the automatic fuel adjustment (gasoline vs. ethanol).(Anyone know why it's more powerful on E85? Huh? Huh?)
  • Ja-GTI So, seems like you have to own a house before you can own a BEV.
  • Kwik_Shift Good thing for fossil fuels to keep the EVs going.
  • Carlson Fan Meh, never cared for this car because I was never a big fan of the Gen 1 Camaro. The Gen 1 Firebird looked better inside and out and you could get it with the 400.The Gen 2 for my eyes was peak Camaro as far as styling w/those sexy split bumpers! They should have modeled the 6th Gen after that.