In Clermont, affectionately nicknamed “the Akron, Ohio, of France,” Pascal Zammit is creating the future of the tire.
As vice president of connected mobility for Michelin, the world’s largest tire company, Zammit is focused on helping Michelin connect millions of tires on vehicles on the road. By 2023, the company plans to expand the use of RFID (radio frequency identification) communications technology to link all its millions of new tires to the Internet of Things (IoT), which would ultimately enable drivers to be informed of their tires’ health and other crucial information.
The company already provides trip planning through its ViaMichelin service and can alert drivers if it senses a slow leak in a tire. But armed with new data, the company plans to introduce predictive maintenance services by asking, for example, does the driver need new tires before embarking on a journey?
“In the future, we will understand your driving behavior, we will understand the status of your tires and we will understand the quality of the road,” Zammit said.
Half a world away, in Blacksburg, Virginia, researchers at the Center for Tire Research (CenTiRe), have even more ambitious plans. CenTiRe, a global consortium of tire makers and two universities – Virginia Tech and Ohio’s University of Akron – study tires mostly in a laboratory setting. Saied Taheri, founder of CenTiRe, said his researchers use sensors in tires to collect a wide range of data: whether the tires are operating on asphalt or concrete roads, whether the roads are covered by snow or ice, whether tires are at risk of hydroplaning or skidding. That information can be communicated to the driver to help keep them safe and to other vehicles in the area. Information about road conditions and traffic can be communicated among vehicles on one hand and bridges and tunnels on the other.
This revolution in tire intelligence will be enabled by the advent of IoT-powered, fifth generation (5G) wireless, expected to enable communication speeds 100 times faster than 4G. Tire innovators are preparing for the day when tires loaded with sensors develop a central role in vehicle-to-driver, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications.
Tires already have sensors that detect tire pressure and heat, but many more, including accelerometers, are on the way. These sensors capture the friction of the tire on the road. Companies have devised a sensor “patch” that is 20 centimeters (8 inches) wide and extends from one sidewall of the tire to the other. Each of these patches can place as many as 64 sensors in touch with the road when the wheel is turned, immediately informing the entire “ecosystem” about health and safety issues.
The transition is happening so fast that it may outstrip the capacity of governments to create regulatory frameworks for smart tires and for auto manufacturers to fully incorporate the technology into their vehicles.
To realize the vision of a fully interconnected system of roads, cars and drivers, governments and other stakeholders must first agree on the communications standards and legal framework for who bears responsibility if a component of the system fails. Regulators may also decide who will own and control the data that tires generate – drivers, car companies (OEMs) or the tire makers themselves.
For their part, automakers are signaling that they need time to incorporate the new technologies into complex systems based on with years of engineering development. In many cases, integration will require five years of planning. But “in five years, most of this technology will be obsolete,” CenTiRe’s Taheri said. “There will be new sensors and new forms of communication.”
That friction is yet another example of the race between fast-developing technology and humanity’s ability to manage and incorporate it.
Michelin also has staked out a clear position on who owns the data: the owner/user. “Respect for user data is fundamental, and Michelin’s conviction is based on the freedom for owner/users to choose the data they wish to share and the third-party service providers who will use it,” Zammit said.
How much faster 5G communication speeds are expected to be over 4G, enabling a revolution in tire intelligence
This month, Michelin plans to demonstrate one tangible example of what the future holds, unveiling a predictive maintenance service relying on in-vehicle data to the European Authorities in Brussels. Michelin envisions a completely standard, secure, hacker-resistant system – another key concern for those trying to build vehicles of the future.
Their efforts mean that tires may ultimately play a key role in the development and adoption of autonomous vehicles. CenTiRe’s Taheri said his researchers can already tell – from thousands of miles away – whether tires are operating on a road with potholes or cracks, and then feed that information back into a vehicle’s advanced chassis control or stability control systems so that the vehicle automatically slows down or adapts to road conditions.
The problem, from the perspective of OEM manufacturers, whose products are developing into mobile communication platforms, is: What if one of the sensors fails or the information is not properly fed into one of the systems controlling the vehicle’s stability? How could a vehicle’s systems be engineered so that, if a tire-generated information flow suddenly stopped, traditional safety systems would automatically kick in without compromising the driver’s safety?
“It’s a complication they haven’t really figured out,” Taheri said. “It’s not fail safe yet.”
But, like most of the questions that invariably surround new technologies, solving it is only a matter of time.