Are Airless Tires the Rubber of the Future?

Source: Hankook Tire
Source: Hankook Tire

Earlier this week, Hankook Tire announced that it had successfully completed both ride and handling testing of its latest non-pneumatic tire (NPT) without incident. Labeled as the Hankook iFlex, this futuristic form of run-flat tire is made out of environmentally-friendly materials, and is set to potentially be one of the biggest game changers since the advent of the tubeless tire.

Heralded as the latest in rolling technology, Hankook is hoping this latest advancement will bring drivers one step closer to a world that is free of punctures and blowouts. Forever looking to push the boundaries of what can be done behind the wheel, Hankook is pretty gung-ho about this project, as it strives to walk a thin between performance, reliability, sustainability, and cost.

Removing the need for air pressure from the equation has been something Hankook Tire has been working on since 2011, and while previous prototypes have proven to be successful on certain levels, this is the first time the South Korean company has a model that is overachieving on every level. For years Hankook says it has been working toward the development of NPTs that “achieve all of the practical benefits of conventional air pressure tires while simultaneously enhancing their high speed tire characteristics,” so it must give them a huge boost of confidence to finally see all that hard work paying off. This latest version is the fifth NPT concept tire that Hankook Tire has developed, but the Korean company still has a long way to go before it can start selling this product to the public.

While this is exciting, it is by no means an industry first, as companies like Bridgestone have also been working on airless tire technology since 2011, and Michelin has already been selling its Tweel airless invention in a format that is designed for mowers, skid steer loaders, and other forms of light machinery. However, if this iFlex design of Hankook’s hits the market sooner than later it would then be considered an industry first, as no one has successfully created a marketable automotive airless tire that can do everything a traditional design can on the roads.

Source: TouTube/Hankook Tire Global Official Page
Source: TouTube/Hankook Tire Global Official Page

The construction of the iFlex is being centered around a type of uni-material, which has been designed to lessen the company’s environmental impact. On the manufacturing side, the materials used during construction are designed to significantly enhance energy efficiency so that the final product may one day be recycled with ease. Hankook has also introduced new tire construction techniques that simplify the manufacturing process, thus reducing production from eight stages to just four, which drastically minimizes the company’s carbon footprint all while saving precious time, money, and energy.

Out on the track, a series of tests pushed the prototype to its limits as durability, hardness, stability, slalom, and speed all came into play. In the speed test, which has long been the Achilles heel for the prototype, Hankook’s iFlex-equipped electric car hit 80 miles-per-hour without incident, and went on to score high marks in every other category. These results have given grounds for the company to continue its pursuit of a mass produced NPT tire for the global market, with the ultimate goal being that they will someday be able to match the performance one finds in a conventional tire.

These kinds of results are what Hankook has been striving for all along, as it tries wholeheartedly to solidify its place in the market as a “global top-tier tire company.” In a recent news blast the forward thinking company said that this kind of progression will hopefully “give new momentum to its future-oriented R&D capabilities,” and with the kind of talent they are attracting this should not be an issue in the slightest.

Hankook has a plethora of projects designed to develop the tires of the future, and with new thinking comes a new generation of gearhead. Brand campaigns focusing on giving talented designers and engineers a chance to put their wildest futuristic dreams to the test in the name of innovation has proven a huge hit for Hankook, as it continues to be known for hiring some of the freshest minds in the industry. Every two years they set-up a collaboration event with a few world-renowned design schools and host the “Design Innovation” project, which allows students to study and propose future tire concepts to make the rubber we rely on far more reliable and advanced than anything the world has seen to date.

But just because these ingenious tires are passing tests with flying colors doesn’t mean drivers will be able to pick-up a set anytime soon. This kind of development may be newsworthy, but in order to get them on the market these tires will have to go through a lot more training. However, if what Hankook is saying does indeed turn out to be true, the evolution of the tire could be set to jump a few generations into the future in no time flat. Let’s just hope they cover-up all those open channels on the sides of the tire because that looks like a royal pain in the ass to clean.

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