Engineers at Michelin’s American technology center are envisioning a future in which vehicles will ride on what they call the Tweel, a combined tire and wheel that will never go flat because it contains no air.
Arriving at a conference room recently to explain the development project, a research engineer, Bart Thompson, used the Segway Human Transporter that he rode to the meeting to illustrate his points. Aboard this high-tech visual aid – one of those self-balancing electric scooters best remembered for the optimistic claim that it would reinvent personal transportation – Mr. Thompson whizzed down the hallway and out to the lobby, pirouetting among the benches and planters to demonstrate the flexibility of the Tweel.
To be sure, the Segway would be a very small market for Michelin, the world’s leading tiremaker, but it is an apt demonstration vehicle for the Tweel. The first commercial use of the integrated tire and wheel assembly will be on the stair-climbing iBOT wheelchair, another product developed by Dean Kamen, the Segway’s inventor; Michelin said it would announce another application at the Detroit auto show next week.
The tiremaker has high expectations for the Tweel project. The concept of a single-piece tire and wheel assembly is one the company expects to spread to passenger cars and, eventually, to construction equipment and aircraft.
The Tweel offers a number of benefits beyond the obvious attraction of being impervious to nails in the road. The tread will last two to three times as long as today’s radial tires, Michelin says, and when it does wear thin it can be retreaded.
For manufacturers, the Tweel offers an opportunity to reduce the number of parts, eliminating most of the 23 components of a typical new tire as well as the costly air-pressure monitors that will soon be required on new vehicles in the United States.