Blistering. Graining. Aquaplaning.
Such phrases are commonly heard when watching motorsports, such as Formula One and are not typically experienced in day-to-day driving. In motorsport, the sight of tyre debris accumulating during a race and remaining on track after the chequered flag is common. Racing tyres erode rapidly during a race due to extreme conditions. Compromised tyres can go “off the cliff” and result in a sudden loss of performance and control, making the vehicle challenging to manage.
Modern road cars are not stressed as much as racing tyres but do suffer from gradual degradation, and such erosion can lead to deposits on the road. In racing, shreds of rubber straddle the racing line and wreak havoc for drivers that stray. (Ever driven on marbles?!) In the real world, tyre degradation is slower and tyres are replaced infrequently.
A set of Formula One tyres used in a race weekend reputedly cost tens of thousands of pounds (source). That cost represents the significant resources that go into developing tyres that are fit for the extreme purpose of racing. According to Michelin’s website – a company no longer involved in Formula One – their budget in 2020, for the research and development of the humble road tyre, was EUR 646 million. The development of tyres for road vehicles is therefore also big business.
In this article, we explore some of the innovations in tyre technology in the automotive and micromobility sectors and examine some of the patents protecting them.
One area of tyre development that has received increased focus in recent times is airless tyre technology. Although not yet available for everyday road car users, airless tyres have been accessible to users for low-speed applications and those that require durability (such as mini-excavators, forklift trucks, military vehicles, and bikes).
As demonstrated by the graph below (using the specific Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) code relevant to non-inflatable tyres and using publically available data from Espacenet), the number of worldwide patent publications in the last (full) 10 years directed at airless tyre technology grew exponentially from 2013 until roughly stabilising since 2017. The trend in patent publications is similar to the shape of an S-curve typically seen with technology life cycles. The plateau in the publications between 2017 and 2020 could therefore suggest a level of maturity in the development of non-inflatable tyres, although this could equally be an inflection point given the growth in 2021, so we may see a further upward trend as airless tyres roll onto our roads.
Leading multinational tyre manufacturers such as Michelin, who pride themselves on disruptive innovations (source), have been developing airless tyre technology because a significant advantage is that these tyres are not susceptible to punctures. As you can imagine, Michelin is a significant patent filer with over 368 patent applications filed in 2018 (source), so will have many patents in this emerging area.
One example using Michelin is the UPTISTM tyre, which uses a ribbed suspension system whereby the rib pattern in the tyre acts as mini shock absorbers. According to Michelin’s website, as of late 2019, research into airless tyres spanned more than 10 years and during that time the UPTIS™ prototype:
“has already been the subject of more than 50 patents related to the design of its structure and its high-tech materials”.
According to an online factsheet, the UPTIS™ airless mobility solution may be a mainstream reality on passenger vehicles by 2024. If this does become a mainstay, could we see an update to the official mascot, the Michelin Man? A recent update, according to published information on the WIPO brand database, is a facial expression (US 97160013) and running snapshot (US 97159666), as filed in each of two US trade mark applications in December last year. Given that the Michelin Man is formed of stacked tyres, updating the brand is by no means required, but it would be fun to see an adaptation for the airless tyre variety. Perhaps, this represents an opportunity for them to introduce a new character; a Michelin Woman / Child / Cousin (?!).
Although Michelin’s developments appear significantly advanced, they are not alone in the race to commercialise airless tyre technology. Bridgestone for example, announced their development in March this year (source), and Hankook recently unveiled their concept during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2022, which they call the i-Flex™ (source). When performing a basic search using the above patent classification (B60C7/00) and specific applicant names, there was little to find from Continental and even less from Pirelli. Given how competitive the tyre market is, it is likely they too will be working behind the scenes on their own concepts so we could expect commercial announcements in the near future.
Out of this world
Another recent ingenious tyre innovation is the work by the SMART Tire Company and NASA who are bringing SMART’s (Shape Memory Alloy Radial Technology) revolutionary METL tire to micromobility.
Using technology first used by NASA for the wheels on Martian and lunar rovers, the METL tire requires no inflation and uses innovative shape-memory alloys (SMAs) rather than frangible rubber associated with conventional tyres. This novel approach is a fantastic demonstration of how space exploration technology can filter down to Earth. According to a TechCrunch+ article:
“SMART’s technology has the potential not only to make flat tires or under inflation a thing of the past, but could reduce cost and waste long-term by supplementing the need for rubber tires, which need frequent replacement and can be a danger to riders or drivers when used without proper pressure.”
An international patent application, later published as WO 2022/056098 A1, was filed by NASA in September 2021 (with a priority date back to September 2020) to protect the technology. That filing teaches a non-pneumatic structure such as a vehicle tyre, consisting of a matrix of SMA elements (source). Notice of intent to grant a partially exclusive patent license to the SMART Tire Company, Inc. was publically discussed in May last year.
Developments in new tyre materials, such as those from the SMART Tire Company, could become an area for growth in tyres, especially when sustainability reasons are playing a greater part in their future.
Due to the nature of the tyre rubber, a tyre will degrade and particles of rubber can be distributed into the surrounding environment. (No, you are not losing your marbles; your tyre is!) Minimising this effect is useful in the real world for potential improved sustainability. According to an article from Tire Technology International:
“Pollution from tyre wear can be 1,000 times worse than exhaust emissions” (due to microplastic pollution).
The Tyre Collective, a UK startup, who recently exhibited at the Cenex-LCV2022 event in Milbrook that was attended by Abel + Imray attorneys, are aiming to reduce that problem. By capturing this stealthy source of microplastic pollution at source, and therefore minimise the release of tyre particles into our environment, cars could effectively clean-up after themselves.
Their innovation has led to several accolades, such as the International Runner Up for the 2020 James Dyson Award, and appears to be shown in their pending international patent application, WO 2021/152331 A1. Even if this solution is not widely adopted, their work raises awareness of non-conventional environmental pollutants affecting most forms of road transport.
Last year, Pirelli announced their “cyber tyre”, another future feature of the tyre industry. As shown by Pirelli, each of the four tyres in the McLaren Atura hybrid supercar are fitted with sensors that feedback vital data for safe driving (source). The tyres are continuously monitored in real-time to assess the current condition and whether that is suitably matched to the environment.
When looking at the patent publications, US 2022/016944 A1 seems relevant. This discloses a tyre with a monitoring device having a sensor for detecting temperature, pressure, acceleration, and/or deformation of the tyre, and a processing unit, a transceiver, and electric power supplier.
This example demonstrates how software, and not just hardware, can play a role in advancing tyre systems, where both aspects are typically protectable through patent filings.
Given the upward trend in patent publications in non-inflatable tyres and the big budgets required to keep ahead of the competition, the well-grounded tyre is set to evolve in years to come.
It has never been a more exciting time to reinvent the wheel.
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Ritchie Daniel Associate