Airless bike tires may sound like an oxymoron, but they are a functional product becoming an increasingly plausible reality. In 2018, the first 3D-printed airless bicycle tire was released, designed using a thermoplastic elastomer that is specially designed to render 3D-printed objects that retain pliability. The airless tire is both extremely durable and resistant to extreme temperatures.
3D printers also have the capacity to print a variety of tires contingent on riding factors – like varying weather conditions and the quality of terrain. And, most importantly, an airless tire can never go flat. However, though these airless bike tires are functional, they are still only in the prototypal phase (for now).
While airless tires are currently only found on heavy equipment (backhoes, bulldozers, etc.), the future of these tires for both bicycles and passenger vehicles looks bright. Airless tires for cars feature a spoke structure designed to support the weight of the vehicle entirely, and this new model of tire would effectively eliminate the need to refill tires with air.
While filling up with air may seem trivial, consider how many deaths are attributable in one way or another to tire blowouts, wrecks, and roadside repair.
There are multiple benefits of airless tires – both for the consumer and the environment. In terms of consumer benefits, non-pneumatic tires will never experience air leakage. No spare tires will be necessary, and less vehicle weight means better fuel economy. Economic gains may even be achieved by having fewer flat tire slowdowns for those experiencing difficulty and for the traffic that results from lane closures and onlooker delays.
In terms of environmental benefits, airless car tires may minimize energy loss. Repeated tire deformation causes energy loss, and the innovative structure of airless tires eliminates the repeated changes in tire shape, significantly reducing energy loss from tire rolling resistance. Additionally, they can be engineered from recyclable materials, unlike their conventional counterparts. Airless tires never need to be tossed into the garbage due to their durability. These tires represent an innovative and sustainable alternative to the current model of tire.
However, some criticisms have been leveled against airless tires for passenger vehicles. If vehicle suspension is lower, the impact of rough terrain will be absorbed by the vehicle itself, resulting in mechanical damage. Additionally, without air to facilitate heat dispersion, they could get substantially hotter than a standard tire. However, Michelin has developed an innovative tweel: a combination of the tire and wheel models to remediate the issues addressed above.
While airless tires for passenger vehicles are not currently a reality, tire manufacturers like Bridgestone are advancing the development of the airless tire to provide a comparatively environmentally-friendly product for widespread commercial use. Technological innovations in the automotive industry are an essential step towards sustainable product development and dispersion, and airless tires may just be an creative stride in the right direction.
Written by Blair Hassett, Public Policy Intern
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.