Imagine a 3D printed wheel with a thin coating of tread around its circumference. Now imagine that band of tread can be changed to suit specific conditions. Want a heavy tread to plow though snow on the way to the slopes? How about a super aggressive compound for that track day this weekend? Or a quiet, comfortable ride for that road trip you’ve been planning? The Michelin Vision can do all that and more.
Unveiled at a global symposium on urban mobility in Montreal last week, the Michelin Vision is a wheel and tire in one. Made from sustainable materials, the Vision is also biodegradable — a huge consideration in a world drowning in cast off tires. Because it isn’t pumped full of air like a conventional tire, it can never go flat or suffer a blow out. The 3D printing process creates a structure that looks like alveoli — the tiny air sacs found inside the human lung. It is designed to be strong in the center with more flexibility built in towards the rim.
The process is intended to minimize the amount of rubber required for the treaded surface. Embedded sensors would monitor the condition of the wheel and its tread in real time and notify drivers when tread thickness is low. Those sensors could also communicate with tire shops to schedule tread replacement appointments. Drivers would be able to switch tread compounds whenever they want to.
Mostapha El-Oulhani, the leader of the Vision Project, said at the conference that the Vision concept is a realistic possibility in the near future. “Given how we developed it, the Vision concept tire is a showcase of our expertise as well as a promise of the future. We wanted the Vision to be realistic since no purpose is served by designing objects or services that we know pertinently are unrealistic.”
In addition to using far less rubber than ordinary tires, Michelin is also experimenting with new, more sustainable ways of making synthetic rubber from plant based sources.
This is not the first time Michelin has reinvented the wheel. More than a decade ago it introduced the Tweel, another tire and wheel combination designed to avoid flats and blow outs. Brilliant in concept, the actual product never made it to prime time except as a product for fork lifts and front end loaders.
In 1975, Michelin tried to market its TRX line of tires, which were designed to fit wheels with diameters measured in millimeters instead of inches. With most of the world using the metric system, the company thought it was time for wheels and tires that conformed to that standard instead of some cockamamie system that traced its roots back to the size of some British monarch’s foot. It was another great idea that went nowhere in the commercial world.