Airless Tires Roll Towards Consumer Vehicles

Hankook puts its iFlex airless tire through consumer-oriented ride and handling tests

2 min read
Airless Tires Roll Towards Consumer Vehicles
Photo: Hankook Tire

Air-filled (pneumatic) tires give our vehicles comfortable, cushiony rides. (Thanks tires, we appreciate that.) Looking at it from another perspective, pneumatic tires are containers of pressurized gas that are being subjected to constant abuse, and when something happens to them, it can result in a situation that falls somewhere between a minor annoyance and a deadly catastrophe. We’ve ridden on these things for about 130 years now, and while they’ve improved substantially since John Dunlop invented them to keep his kid from getting headaches while riding his bike, it seems that we can still do better. Hankook is trying to make better happen with a consumer-oriented airless tire.

Instead of pressurized air as a shock absorber that can also support the weight of the vehicle, airless tires (also called non-pneumatic tires, or NPTs) use deformable solid materials (usually rubber) to achieve the same effects. Here’s a concept video from a couple of years back:

There are already airless tires in production: Michelin sells the Tweel for agricultural vehicles, and Polaris has been offering an ATV with NPTs since late 2013. What’s new is Hankook’s announcement that it has been aggressivley testing its NPT for applications that require more than low-speed ruggedness. Among them is the passenger vehicle. The series of “rigorous tests” that the company is putting its tires through are meant to prove their durability, hardness (efficiency), stability, ability to take high-speed turns (slalom), and ability to maintain their integrity at high speeds (up to 130 kilometers per hour). Hankook says that “the impressive results in all five categories demonstrated that the NPTs could match conventional tires in terms of performance.”

That’s all good stuff, but what’s especially promising is that Hankook has been able to vastly improve the efficiency of its manfacturing process, reducing the number of steps to four from eight. The NPTs are recyclable, too. None of this is any guarantee that Hankook will be releasing a consumer product any time soon; it’s going to take a lot of safety testing before this new type of tire is allowed on the road. But durability and performance testing and a focus on manufacturability likely means that these tires are (finally) treading beyond the prototype stage.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

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A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

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Green

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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