Autonomous Cars Could Ride On GM, Michelin’s Airless Tires

  • Nick Jaynes has worked for more than a decade in automotive media industry. In that time, he's done it all—from public relations for Chevrolet to new-car reviews for Mashable. Nick now lives in Portland, Oregon and spends his weekends traversing off-road trails in his 100 Series Toyota Land Cruiser.

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Forget teaching your kids how to change a flat tire. General Motors and Michelin’s new airless tires could make tire damage of all kinds a thing of the past

  • GM and Michelin’s unique puncture-proof tire system (Uptis) prototype will enter real-world testing this year on Bolt EVs.
  • GM aims to put Uptis tires on publicly available production cars in 2024.
  • Uptis tires are ideal for all-electric robotaxis because they aid in efficiency and never require a side-of-the-road flat repair.

For the last several years, tire companies have been toying with (and showing off prototypes of) airless tires. They’re airless because the traditional air pocket between the outside of the tire and the vehicle rim is replaced by a flexible rubber structure. It was not clear from the demonstrations, however, whether the technology would ever be not only feasible for more than press exhibits but also strong enough to be released to the public bolted up to consumer cars. This week, we got our answer.

That’s because General Motors announced a partnership with Michelin, one of the companies leading the airless tire charge, to create the Uptis tire prototype. And, no, Uptis isn’t a weird french word. No, it’s an acronym (kind of) for unique puncture-proof tire system.

Although this is just a prototype tire, GM will begin testing it in the real world on pure-electric Bolt EVs. And it intends to send the tires into production on consumer vehicles by 2024.

The Michelin Uptis Prototype is tested on a Chevrolet Bolt EV Wednesday, May 29, 2019 at the General Motors Milford Proving Ground in Milford, Michigan. GM intends to develop this airless wheel assembly with Michelin and aims to introduce it on passenger vehicles as early as 2024. | Photo: Steve Fecht for General Motors

 

The tire does more than prevent annoying punctures that leave tires flat and owners sitting by the side of the road. Though, it does that, too. Having a tire that, essentially, can’t be prematurely destroyed (before the tread wears down below safe levels) offers many benefits to consumers, carmakers, and — not insignificantly — the environment.

Of course, if your tire can never go flat, you’ll be safer on the road because you’ll never be subject to a catastrophic blowout. Same goes for fuel efficiency. According to fueleconomy.gov, you can improve your car’s efficiency up to 3% by keeping tires inflated to the correct pressure. So think of the built-in savings of having a tire that never goes below ideal pressure, which causes inefficiency.

Furthermore, if your tire never goes flat, you’d never need to carry a spare. If everyone’s tires were puncture- and flat-proof, far fewer spare and replacement tires would need to be manufactured. This saves not only rubber, but also the energy that goes into harvesting, refining, and transporting the rubber and the resulting tires.

Here’s the real reason I foresee a carmaker like General Motors wants to invest in airless, puncture-proof tires: for implementation on all-electric self-driving robotaxis. Now, I know that sounds like a string of e-mobility buzzwords. But I swear it’s actually a meaningful sentence.

Think about it. These things are perfect for electric cars chiefly because they ensure ideal efficiency. No precious electric range will ever be sacrificed to low tire pressure. Plus, they further improve efficiency (albeit ever so slightly) by reducing the weight required in installing a spare tire. No flats ever? Then you don’t need to carry a spare. And that will save weight and improve efficiency, too.

Uptis is also ideal for autonomous cars, too. I mean, GM isn’t going to want to ask the rider of a self-driving robotaxi to get out and change a flat, right? Nor do they want to have servicemen driving around in trucks changing robotaxi tires either. This eliminates those woes altogether.

I hope you agree that what, at the outset seemed like a needless innovation, proves to be at least moderately impactful on the success of electric and self-driving vehicles.


About the Author

  • Nick Jaynes has worked for more than a decade in automotive media industry. In that time, he's done it all—from public relations for Chevrolet to new-car reviews for Mashable. Nick now lives in Portland, Oregon and spends his weekends traversing off-road trails in his 100 Series Toyota Land Cruiser.

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