The very first pneumatic tyres designed by John Dunlop were based simply on a hollow, rubber tube filled with air and were designed to improve the comfort of his son’s tricycle. Originally narrow and tall, similar to the tyres on a bicycle today, these tyres didn’t need to handle much stress or load when they became adapted to suit automobiles.
Dunlop’s First Pneumatic Bicycle Tyre
However, as automobiles became more popular in the 1900’s and technology began to advance, tyres needed to do the same. Larger, more powerful vehicles lead to the introduction of the radial tyre, which made vehicles more fuel efficient and improved stability. Michelin were the first to patent the Radial Tyre, using steel belts to reinforce the tyre and provide increased durability for motorists.
Motorsport has always been a driving force behind automotive technological developments. In 1974 Pirelli introduced the P7, the first ’Ultra Low-Profile Radial Tyre’ initially developed for the Lancia Stratos to compete in the World Rally Championship. Developed in size 195/50, this isn’t a wide or low-profile tyre by today’s standards but was revolutionary at the time and soon became a key element in the design of competition cars.
The success of the Pirelli P7 lead to the creation of the P7 Corsa, which soon became known as the ‘king of motorsport’ after leading to multiple WRC victories and being the tyre choice for WRC front-runners Lancia, Fiat-Abarth, Ford and Audi and winning Pirelli 7 manufacturers’ world titles. Continuing to win races up until 1986, the P7’s successor was to be the Pirelli P Zero, which continued the legacy of the P7, taking Lancia to WRC victory once again in 1987.
More recently, as the world has become more environmentally aware and the popularisation of electric vehicles continues, manufacturers have turned their attention to creating more efficient tyres. Developing new manufacturing processes and rubber compounds, tyres are being made lighter and with improved tread patterns to improve fuel efficiency while retaining safety and performance. The Michelin Energy Saver uses the latest silica generation, almost completely replacing ‘carbon black’, a pigment used in tyre construction used to increase lifespan and durability, made using fossil fuels.
An interesting development has seen Michelin revive of the non-pneumatic tyre. Known as the Michelin X Tweel, these can sometimes be seen on industrial applications such as skid-steer loaders, ATVs and other off-road applications susceptible to punctures. Instead of a pneumatic tyre fitted around a wheel, this technology is an airless radial tyre in a single unit, bolted on in the same way a wheel might be. Using poly-resin spokes to absorb impact and handle the rough terrain without inconvenience caused by flat tyres.
Looking into the future, Michelin continue to develop the idea of airless tyres, in 2019 Michelin unveiled the Uptis (Unique Puncture-Proof Tyre System). Using a similar spoke system to the Michelin X Tweel, the Uptis has been designed with passenger vehicles in mind and in a bid to reduce the use of raw materials and waste within the tyre industry.
The Michelin Uptis
In 2017 Michelin introduced their concept tyre – ‘VISION’. The VISION Concept uses an airless design that can be manufactured through the use of 3D printing and uses organic, biodegradable materials to reduce the environmental impact of both production and the tyre its self. The VISION Concept is also set to be a ‘connected’ tyre, fitted with sensors that will provide real-time information to the driver about its condition.
On the market now is the first connected tyre – the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 Connect. Again a development driven by motorsport, the Cup 2 Connect uses an internal sensor to provide real-time data on tyre temperatures and pressure, helping the user to optimise tyre pressure to achieve faster lap times. Read more about the Cup 2 Connect here.
Today we see the advancements in motorsports and engineering begin to exceed the capabilities of tyres. The Bugatti Chiron set an unofficial world record top speed of 304mph with a set of specially designed Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2, it was unable to set the official record (by running in both directions and taking an average top speed) due to the direction of the tarmac causing excess heat in the tyres on the return run which would make the vehicle unsafe. In Formula 1 we have seen top teams suffer from tyre issues due to the car’s downforce and speeds increasing dramatically each season, paired with hot weather and demanding circuits, it has never been harder for tyre manufacturer Pirelli to keep up with the advancements in engineering and aerodynamics.
The ever-changing landscape of the automotive world will continue to push tyre development, will we expect to see airless tyres become the norm, will tyres continue to get larger and wider or will we see a step back to narrow tyres for less resistance as electric vehicles take over?