Some see airless tires as the promise of a future where worrying about flats becomes a thing of the past. But, like any new technology, making the switch involves both pros and cons.
100% airless tires as a consumer product are still very much in the experimental phase. Manufacturers, like Michelin and U.S. Military contractor Resilient Technologies, have been developing these special honeycomb-rimmed tires for over 10 years now. Before airless tires ever end up on the average joe’s Bimmer, we’ll likely first see them in industrial vehicles like garbage trucks and tractors.
Even still, we have run-flat tires that use a very similar system. Their reinforced internal webbing maintains tire shape even in catastrophic blowouts. Many of airless tire advantages and disadvantages also apply to these tires, so taking into account the pros and cons of airless tires translates well for those considering run-flat tires.
Yet, let’s imagine a world where airless tires are available right next to your typical set of radial all-season tires on the store shelves. You are faced with a decision. Here are the pros and cons you should be thinking about in a moment like this:
PRO: Airless Tires Never Pop
Anyone who’s ever changed tires on a busy highway knows how awful of an experience it is. One minute, you’re driving through a neighborhood where a few careless roofers dropped some nails. Five minutes later, you’re muttering curses as cars zip past you at 60 mph.
Airless tires would eliminate this problem once and for all. While no one would relish the idea of having metal hardware puncturing their tread, they would never have to worry about more dangerous consequences should they ignore it.
Speaking of dangerous consequences, flat tires and blowouts are a huge cause of serious incidents on the road. The NHTSA reported in 2003 that tire troubles caused 78,392 crashes, 10,275 non-fatal injuries and 414 fatalities a year.
Airless tires are therefore not just convenient but also lifesaving.
CON: Airless Tires Would Be More Expensive
The most obvious trade-off a tire shopper would face in an airless future would be cost.
Airless tires haven’t made it to market yet for a variety of reasons, but the biggest one is that they would cost far more than the average consumer would be willing to pay.
On top of that, we don’t have any data yet for how long these tires last compared to their air-filled radial counterparts. There’s a good chance that, for the average consumer, the total ownership cost of a vehicle could dramatically rise if its owner chooses to go airless all the time.
PRO: Improved Traction While Cornering and at Low Speeds
Airless tires are heavier than pneumatic radials and have a more uniform tread surface. Both factors improve their traction at low speeds, especially in turns.
For industrial vehicles, like forklifts, or off-road vehicles, like ATVs, this low-speed maneuverability will provide notable performance benefits.
CON: Harsher Ride and Lower High-Speed Stability
The stiffness of airless tires transmits more road irregularities into the suspension, which in turn sends vibrations to vehicle occupants. For bumpy roads, this can turn what is usually an okay ride into a bumpy nightmare.
At higher speeds, these problems become even more noticeable. Above 50 mph, the road noise and vehicle shaking is enough to call attention to the tires.
PRO: Airless Tires Have the Same Fuel Efficiency as Low Rolling Resistance (LRR) Tires
Because they have a stiffer structure, airless tires would be less prone to deformation while rolling. Since around 2-7% of energy for common gas-powered cars is spent overcoming tire deformation, airless tires would automatically provide fuel economy benefits.
Add that to the lower rate of replacement due to punctures, and you have a much greener world to live in thanks to non-pneumatic tires.
CON: No Air Pressure Means No Adjustability
Those who have intense driving needs off-road or in industrial situations know the benefits provided by a giant cushion of air in your tires. By letting out some of the tire pressure, you can create a softer ride and better traction over loose surfaces or rocky boulders.
People who track their sports cars find tire pressure to be even more important. Subtle tweaks in pressure can translate to performance advantages depending on track conditions, weather and intended driving lines.
Airless tires lack this ability, making them less versatile in certain situations. The average person may not miss this feature, but anyone who loves driving onto the beach or who has to load their pickup on dirty jobsites will certainly feel the effects.
PRO: Lower Costs and Less Vehicle Down-Time for Fleets and Industrial Vehicles
In their airless tire information page, Bridgestone notes how tire failure causes huge losses to productivity and efficiency in industries like farming, mining and construction. Just one mishap can lead to a vehicle getting put out of commission for hours — maybe even weeks. Constant tire replacement costs also add up.
Because airless tires are much less likely to have a complete failure, they would likely be replaced less frequently. These saved replacement costs could add up quickly for truckers, contractors and anyone who owns a vehicle fleet.
Conclusion: Airless Tires Are Still a Few Years Away, But Worth Considering
Overall, airless tires promise huge benefits for heavy commuters and people in certain industries. While companies like Michelin and Bridgestone still have to work out the kinks, airless tires could soon provide another huge leap in auto technology in just a few years.
Born and raised in Michigan, and now a long-time resident of Miami Beach, Jake Bridges went from prodigious child mechanic to motor city engineer to successful custom car shop owner in the short span of 26 years. When he is not busy with his project cars, you can find Jake reading up on the latest auto tech and then immediately writing his take about it for the web to consume; or mesmerizing visitors with his extensive knowledge in his booth at every high profile automotive trade event.