The Air-Free Tire? It's Not Science Fiction Anymore

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 05, 2019

MONTREAL, QUEBEC—I have been plagued by tire punctures recently. On three occasions within the last month I’ve had to get out the jack and/or my new air compressor and deal with flats.

Wouldn’t it be great if someone invented a tire that would never go flat? Well, they have. On June 4 at Michelin’s “Movin’ On” conference in Montreal, the company unveiled Uptis (Unique Puncture-Proof Tire System), a prototype airless tire. It will be tested on a fleet of Chevrolet Bolts with partner General Motors, with the joint aim of reaching production by 2024.

The Uptis tire is headed for the road in 2024. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Cyrille Roget, technical and scientific communications manager at Michelin, pointed out that weight savings—though not from the tire itself—is a key advantage. The Uptis weighs 50 pounds, which is more than a regular tire, but just think about what you don't have to carry with these babies—no jack, no spare, no tire-pressure sensors.

Michelin is, of course, already building an airless tire, but not for cars. The Michelin X Tweel is available for UTVs, ATVs, skid steers, and the like. I saw them on the off-road vehicles at Yellowstone Park a year ago. But ATVs are not cars, which demand a much higher standard of ride quality, handling, and wear-resistance.

Michelin's Eric Vinesse with his revolutionary airless tire. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Eric Vinesse, Michelin’s executive vice president of research and development, told me that the Uptis will be “very close” to current consumer tires in performance and on-the-road behavior. “The handling is very comparable,” he said. “And we’re confident we can deliver the tire at a price that is consistent with the value it provides.” In other words, it may be more expensive, but it will pay for itself by staying on the road without maintenance. It also offers the tantalizing possibility of a replaceable tread. One set of tires for the life of a car? Lug nuts that never need to come off? It’s possible.

“It has excellent energy efficiency, and means less stress and more peace of mind for consumers who won’t get stranded by a flat tire,” Vinesse said. “There’s no maintenance, no uneven wear, no adjusting air pressure.” He said 200 million tires are discarded annually around the world, two million tons of material that equal 200 Eifel Towers.

Early wagons and even some cars had hard rubber tires, with an emphasis on the hard. The pneumatic tire had been invented as early as the 1840s (by a Scotsman who also gave the world the fountain pen) but they didn’t catch on then. It was left to another Scotsman, the veterinarian John Boyd Dunlop, to develop the inflatable tire as we know it in the 1880s, initially for his child’s tricycle.

A Chevrolet Bolt shod in Uptis rubber. (Jim Motavalli photo)

It’s taken all this time for us to go back to solid tires. The key, says Michelin, is a new generation of flexible reinforcing resin-embedded fiberglass, which results in a tire with ribs that can deform and bend the way regular tires do over irregular surfaces.

Steve Kiefer, GM’s senior vice president for global purchasing and supply chain, said that the company is aiming for a world of “zero emissions, zero crashes, and zero congestion.” Puncture-proof tires won’t get us there, but they’re a positive step. Kiefer said the Uptis will be tested on the road in a fleet of 200 electric Chevrolet Bolts in San Francisco. Press opportunities to drive equipped cars won’t happen until next year. “We need to evaluate the tires and move to the next stage,” Kiefer said.

The Vision Concept, combining wheel and tire in one airless package, was shown by Michelin in 2017. But the Uptis has conventional wheels. (Jim Motavalli photo)


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