What if your car tires alerted your smartphone when they need to be replaced?
Tire makers have come up with a host of ideas to kick-start a future where conventional black rubber tires do more than roll down the highway. For instance, Italian tire manufacturer Pirelli envisions scenarios where tires sense changes on the street, predict hazardous situations and can intervene if necessary. Some concepts are grounded more closely to where transportation is today, such as tires with embedded sensors offering early indications of damage.
The possible benefits are twofold: Tire companies get sellable information on driving behavior and they can use the data to enhance products. And consumers get futuristic features that make vehicles feel more like smartphones on wheels.
“Tire sensors know how you’re driving, where you’re driving and how quickly the tire is wearing down,” said David Shaw, chief executive of consultancy Tire Industry Research. “If you get a puncture or blowout, then it can phone home and organize a service stop for you. But most importantly, they want to get the data.”
Some next-generation tire sensors are already on the road, primarily on large trucks that transport goods for companies. But they’re making their way onto high-end consumer vehicles, too. Earlier this year, McLaren announced a hybrid supercar with computer chip-loaded tires that can warn drivers if they’re approaching the tire’s maximum speed rating.
In one of the latest examples, Goodyear is bringing intelligence to tires on light commercial vehicles such as package delivery vans, the firm announced Wednesday. The product serves as one step in a wider push to add connectivity to all its tires by 2027, which means lower-end consumer cars may one day have tires built to predict breakdowns and alert drivers of wear.
Goodyear’s sensor-equipped tires are launching under the firm’s new SightLine brand and will include software offering treadwear and tire-pressure alerts.
“Think of it like a Fitbit for the tire,” said Chris Helsel, chief technology officer and senior vice president for global operations at Goodyear. “Much like smartwatches that monitor vitals like heart rates and oxygen levels, SightLine’s tire intelligence monitors the health of a tire.”
The idea is to do more than simply refresh mundane auto parts. In the future, when cars may be shared more and possibly operated without a driver, tools that enable vehicles to be more aware of their environment might enhance safety.
Typically, the internet-connected sensors are mounted on the inside of the tire. In Goodyear’s case, it looks like a thin, round chip, roughly the size of a quarter, and it isn’t visible to the outside world.
As the surface of the tire contacts the road, the internal sensor picks up information about road temperature, tire pressure, traction and vehicle acceleration. A built-in telematics device then sends that data to the cloud. And once retrieved, an algorithm works to forecast when a problem is likely to occur. If the system detects and determines that a blowout is imminent, it can send an app alert with options on where to get it fixed.
The system, including tires, sensors and the software, would add about $96 annually to the operating cost of a new vehicle, Goodyear says. The tire tech could show up on passenger vehicles within two years, Helsel says. It’ll first roll out on light delivery vehicles this summer.
Since the sensors come in direct contact with tires and come in proximity to the pavement, they supposedly offer richer data than today’s industry-standard tire-pressure monitoring systems. Those are mounted on air valves and are responsible for the tire pressure readings on your dash.
Goodyear is among several tire makers to bet on tech-embedded tires. German automaker Continental has sold digital tire monitoring systems for medium-duty trucks for years. The sensors mounted inside the tire can also be purchased separately and retrofitted. French manufacturer Michelin and Japan-based Bridgestone have similar tech to measure strain on tires. Pirelli is responsible for the sensors inside wheels on the latest McLaren Artura sports car. The sensor transmits readings to the vehicle, and some of the data is used to enhance driver alert systems.
One of the main reasons tire makers are set on adding connectivity to tires is simple: They want the data.
Automakers already have data on where cars travel, and how well they perform. Tire makers don’t readily have access to that information, Shaw says. But by loading tires with specialized sensors and compatible smartphone apps, they can.
As tires pass over potholes, bumps and cracks, sensors can determine what parts of the highway may be danger spots in real time. That information can be sold to municipalities or highway maintenance companies, making it an alluring endeavor for tire developers facing stiff competition.
“It’s about finding a new business model. People are happy with buying cheap, import tires. So, companies that are losing share need to leverage their business activities into making money,” Shaw said.
With its SightLine launch, Goodyear hopes to take advantage of the growing last-mile delivery segment, which has skyrocketed amid the coronavirus pandemic as people shopped more online. The U.S. same-day delivery market, valued at roughly $6 billion in 2019, is projected to grow by almost $10 billion through 2024 if people continue to order more packages.
Those deliveries would also require more trucks facing pressure to drop off goods swiftly. A tire blowout slows things down.
“If we can be better at knowing the condition of the tires, we can help prevent those downtime events and keep those vehicles in service,” Helsel said.