Reinventing the wheel
Michelin’s Vision tire debuted to an audience of over 4000 participants from 31 countries in Summer 2017 at the company’s annual sustainable mobility summit. The Vision — both wheel and tire in one — is emblematic of the innovation that the summit seeks to generate: “[…] clean, safe, connected, efficient and inclusive [mobility]”.1 The Vision is airless, renewable and connected. It is everything a contemporary tire is not — while remaining circular in shape.
Both the axel and the tire of the Vision are composed of a fibrous network of organic material consistent throughout the exterior and interior of the object, creating unenclosed pockets of air and a solid yet flexible structure. This structure is immune to blowouts and punctures. An airless tire does not need to be patched, refilled or replaced.
The outer edge of the Vision tire is covered in stepping stone-like treads designed for adaptive contact with the road. These treads are 3D-printed at hypothetical “pit stops”2 designed for this purpose. And when they are worn down by the surface of the road, they are reprinted, again and again. The pattern produced by this reprinting can be adjusted to suit weather and road conditions, eliminating the need for worn tires to be discarded and replaced each season.
Today our visual assessments of weather and road conditions — and our vehicles themselves — are all that we can rely upon to determine when tires need servicing. Michelin’s Vision offers a sounder solution: tire feedback and tread programming options extrapolated from the very 3D printer that renews it.
In the Vision’s concept video, this process takes shape as a couple receives notice from a Michelin app on their car’s console tablet that snow is expected at their GPS-determined destination, followed by the option to print suitable treads at a pit stop along their route.
How it’s made
Design: thinking generatively
Michelin presents the Vision as a product of both design thinking and generative design. Design thinking is both analytical and intuitive, focusing on quantifiable data and qualitative feedback. Attention to the human experience of the product, characterized as empathy, was one of Michelin’s key processes in the application of design thinking.3 This took the form of user interviews. The Vision’s borrowings from nature and the human body are a result of generative design, which takes inspiration and reproduces forms and patterns from existing structures.4
Inspiration comes naturally
The Vision tire’s alveolar structure is inspired by both human and natural biology. The process of breathing is facilitated by the pulmonary system, which includes alveoli: small air pockets in the lungs that permit the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.To be alveolar is to contain alveoli, as opposed to the conventional tire, which can be understood as a single, doughnut-shaped air pocket. Visually, the tire recalls the microscopic structure of human bone and coral (the latter of which has been specially developed as a proxy for the former).
The Vision’s structure is formed by recycled materials, adding environmentally-sustainable production to the tire’s own renewable 3D-printed status. These materials range from the practical (paper, wood, reused natural rubber) to the gastronomic (orange zest and molasses).
Image courtesy of Michelin.com
A cleaner road forward
From production to disposal, the lifespan of the traditional rubber and steel tire is marked by unsustainable environmental impact. Their production requires “15 to 38 liters of petroleum”5 and typically contain a plethora of chemicals that seep into the soil when the non-biodegradable tire reaches a landfill, or burns into the air in the event of fires. In 1990 a fire caused the evacuation of 4000 families in Hagersville Ontario when 14 million tires burned for 17 days.6
The volume and rate with which tires do reach the landfill is alarming: 1.1 tires per person on a yearly basis.7 Tires also pose another surprising but nonetheless serious risk. Once the axle has been removed from discarded tires for recycling as scrap metal, the inner ring of the tire rubber creates a reservoir for standing rainwater. This standing water forms a breeding ground for mosquitoes, contributing to the spread of the West Nile virus.8 The majority of these issues are eliminated or minimized by the structural and technological advancements involved in the production and use of the Vision.
As it is made out of recycled materials, the tire repurposes waste that would otherwise exist in a landfill and does not require harmful chemical agents. Continuous 3D re-printing means that the tire can be renewed rather than thrown away. And even those tires that would unexpectedly require disposal would eventually biodegrade. In the meantime, water would run through the tire’s structure, rather than stagnating and drawing mosquitoes.
Image courtesy of Michelin.com
Visions of the future
Conceptually, Michelin’s Vision tire sits at the crossroads of exciting contemporary technologies: 3D printing, diagnostic applications and, of course, a movement towards zero-waste manufacturing. But the Vision has yet to hit the road. According to Michelin, some of the features of one of TIME Magazine’s 25 Best Inventions of 2017 should be released over the next ten years,9 and the full implementation would also involve a worldwide system of roadside reprinting stations. So if learning about Michelin Vision’s tire has made you eager to eschew your current wheels, you’ll just have to roll with it for a little bit longer.
The future is within reach! Stay tuned to The Electric Blog for all the latest in exciting new technology.