The way we drive is changing. Globally, trends like urbanisation, carpooling, and eventually, autonomous vehicles will mean that the demands we place on our vehicles will change, too. To meet this challenge, the design and function of every vehicular part must be re-imagined to fit these needs, and this includes the tyre.
Goodyear is a world-leading supplier of tyres for cars as well as every type of commercial, industrial and agricultural vehicle. The US manufacturer has built its reputation by leading the development of tyre technology since the late 19th century. Here in the 21st century, it is still applying cutting-edge tech, including artificial intelligence (AI) to stay ahead of the competition.
The reasoning here is that, as cars become more electric and automated and less reliant on moving parts, the seemingly low-tech tyre is an element where innovation can constantly bring benefits. It is one of the increasingly-few parts that still need routine maintenance and regular replacement. In an ideal world, it is also one of the few external parts that should come into contact with any physical object. This means it has access to a virtual “sensory faculty” – the sense of touch.
Goodyear CTO Chris Helsel explained to me that this was the jumping-off point, several years ago now, for a rethink of how the tyre could become a more “intelligent” component – performing its duty more efficiently, while also helping to build a better understanding of what happens when the rubber meets the road.
He said, “We started thinking about how we can make the tyres a more permanent structure for a vehicle through its life – and that was kind of the genesis behind this concept of the ReCharge.”
The concept tyre – initially scheduled to be unveiled to the world at the cancelled Geneva International Motor Show in March – uses AI to monitor and learn from driver behaviour. Over its lifetime, it dispenses a synthetic material inspired by the carbon structure of spider silk, to alter the composition of the tyre, adapting it to suit the way the vehicle is driven.
Different materials can be dispensed from interchangeable “pellets” that can be fitted to the tyres. The pellets push the material through grooves in the tyre structure, enabling it to effectively rebuild the exterior surface of the tyre when it detects that wear has occurred. As well as reinforcing the surface (leading to longer-lasting tyres – perhaps with a lifespan similar to that of the vehicle), the tyre becomes more “personalised” to the driver.
When (and if) the technology goes into production, this could mean we are able to automatically receive “refills” from manufacturers, based on AI predictions of our individual usage patterns, in the same way, that we can now receive replacement ink cartridges for our printers.
“The capsules could be tuned for … you do a lot of highway driving, that’s not a lot of high wear -you don’t need a lot of fast stopping distance and handing, therefore maybe the capsule will be extremely tuned for fuel economy,” says Helsel. “Or if you do a lot of start-stop and turning [on urban roads] where there’s a lot of abrasion happening, we recommend one that’s maybe high-wear.”
The concept also has benefits for sustainability, as manufacturers attempt to decrease their reliance on petrochemical-derived synthetic rubber that is mixed with naturally-grown rubber to increase the durability and performance of modern tyres.
The ReCharge is the latest iteration of Goodyear’s Intelligent Tyre prototype. This is built around information being sent to Goodyear’s cloud servers where it is processed to build “driver signature” profiles, via the tyre’s telematics component, installed between the tyre and the wheel hub,
“The reason that’s important is because – vehicles have a lot of sensors, but we think it’s important that there’s a sensor in the [component] where contact is made with the road,” Helsel explains.
“What we’re really working towards on the roadmap is the ability to detect, in real-time, what’s happening at the road interface. Nobody can do that today.”
Today’s cars do have sensors that can detect, for example, that conditions are icy and brakes may not perform optimally. Goodyear’s tech takes this a step further, however, by enabling complex predictions to be made based on data gathered from potentially millions of roadgoing tyres.
As we move into the era of smart cities, this information could also be used by civic service providers to maintain highways more effectively, leading to less vehicle wear-and-tear and reducing accident rates.
“At any given time – if you consider the number of tyres we sell in a year – we could quickly get up to half a billion sensors touching the road at any given time. We would have access to that information,” says Helsel.
Research into artificial intelligence and the impact it can have on real-world driving has been ongoing at Goodyear for many years. One of the most important – and the area in which Helsel first began working when he joined Goodyear – is the field of simulation. As early adopters of what is now known as the “digital twin” concept of design, prototyping, and testing, Goodyear has reduced its product development costs by at least half, by moving the “build-and-test” process from the real world to the virtual world.
“When I first came into this industry, nearly 25 years ago, it was all build-and-test”, Helsel says.
“My role was computer modelling, building a virtual model of the tyre, and testing the data. Now what we have is almost the third leg of the stool – we’re awash with all this data.
“And we wouldn’t limit it to just product development. Think of all of the systems you use to run your business … whether you’re doing product development or demand planning, you name it … any of those corporate functions are very similar, and it’s about enabling knowledge workers to become that much more effective and efficient.”