rubber tire or tyre 3D, on blue
rubber tire or tyre 3D, on blue (Photo Credit: www.shutterstock.com)

With all the research and development being done with regards to autonomous cars, big names in the corporate world are taking vehicle safety more seriously than ever before.

The car tyres of today are based on the design first developed by Michelin (the french tyre company) in 1946 and apart from size and tread design, the fundamentals of Michelin’s first tyre have largely stayed the same over the past seven decades. This begs the question, are current car tyres providing maximum safety levels?

To answer this question we have to look at the potential dangers and whether or not they can be prevented.

Blowouts

While tyre blowouts aren’t as common as they used to be, they’re still a potential hazard.

Despite the popular thought that blowouts are cause by overinflated tyres, the exact opposite is true. Blowouts happen when a tyre is underinflated. The lack of pressure causes it to flex beyond what it’s designed to until it overheats and the rubber loses its bond to the internal fabric and steel cord reinforcement.

Blowouts can also happen as a result of overloading. This can be extremely dangerous because a heavy load combined with the sudden loss of tyre pressure can make it almost impossible to control the vehicle, leading to a serious accident.

The fundamental culprit here is air pressure. So how do we solve this problem? Well, Michelin have been hard at work designing a completely new tyre. One that takes air pressure out of the equation altogether. Looking at this new concept tyre you’d think it looks like a sponge, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

Dubbed “Vision”, it’s sponge-like appearance is inspired by the pattern of air sacks in human lungs.

The Vision is 3D printed from biodegradable materials and covered in a thin layer of rubber which makes up the tyre’s tread. This opens up advantages to the consumer in that they’ll never have to buy another set of tyres again.

When your tread wears down, you can simply bring your car in and have new tread 3D printed on the current tyres. No need to replace them entirely.

Old Tyres

Rubber has a limited useable lifespan and despite the fact that tyres are made of more than just rubber, they are no exception.

A spare tyre that’s been sitting in the boot of your car or in your garage for the past couple of years may look new, but it’s a potential safety risk. The Journal of Physical Chemistry published a technical paper in 1929 noting that oxygen ages rubber. If you’ve ever come across an old elastic band you’ll have found that it looks fine, but it had lost all elasticity and broke apart when trying to stretch it.

The same thing happens to car tyres.

Two independent studies in Germany found that tyres deteriorate increasingly faster after six years. Tragic evidence of this can be found in the death of actor Paul Walker who died in a car accident while driving his Porsche Carrera GT.

Investigations done by the California Highaway Patrol found the tyres on the Porsche were nine years old and compromised the handling characteristics of the car.

Accidents like these may be completely avoided thanks to a team of engineering researchers at Harvard who have produced a new type of rubber capable of repairing itself.

Without getting too technical, rubber is made up of polymers which are connected by covalent bonds. These bonds are incredibly strong, but once these bonds break they’ll never reconnect and in order to create self healing rubber the team needed to find a way to reconnect them.

This was the biggest hurdle the team had to overcome, which they’ve managed to do using “molecular rope” known as randomly branched polymers. The research team was able to tie these two bonds together allowing them to mix on a molecular level. This was the team’s breakthrough…a new type of rubber.

The team published a paper to Advanced Materials which will be an interesting read if you’re a science geek. There’s still plenty of work to be done before the new rubber reaches the public, but suffice to say, this a big step forward to creating a better future in terms of road safety.

With all the advances in safety and alternative power sources (think fuel cells and electric cars), the most basic element of rolling forward remains the car tyre. The future of modern roads and the vehicles navigating it is going to be vastly different from what we know today.

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