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How the humble tyre can shape the car design of the future

By Rebecca Milligan

With high fuel prices driving a return to more economic car styles, we take a look at the technology that’s paving the way for ultra-efficient and driverless cars
future car design with spherical wheels

Everyone knows that skirt lengths rise and fall in line with the economy – they’re currently sitting around mid-calf - but did you know that car wheels and tyres follow similar trends?

Pre-2008 the fashion was for bling; the bigger the wheel, the better, with so-called Chelsea tractors often seeming to clog up our urban streets. In more austere times, consumers require greater economy and manufacturers have responded by making their vehicles far more efficient. ‘You can often pick up used 4x4s for dramatically reduced prices these days,’ says Andy Lawrence, Managing Director of Hometyre. ‘Fewer motorists desire these vehicles now due to the higher costs of repair and replacement parts, not to mention additional fuel and road tax premiums.’

The push towards greater economy is being fuelled by a combination of cash-conscious consumers and government regulation designed to improve fuel efficiency. A car’s tyres can affect fuel economy by 20%, and tyre pressure monitoring systems became mandatory in all cars registered after 1st November 2012. Newer models will continue to be designed to generate far less rolling resistance and consequently use less fuel.

EU Regulations in 2012 also introduced compulsory labelling of tyres. Labelling on the tyres assists consumer choice, so manufacturers have had to make tyres that perform better in key areas; wet braking ability, rolling resistance and noise output. This is pushing the trend back to a more narrow tread design on economy-focussed vehicles.

If you need new tyres for your car, give a Which? Trusted Trader a call. Search for garages and repair services in your area now.

The future’s electric

So modern cars all make better use of their tyres, but the efficiencies don’t end there.

Although hybrid and electric vehicles currently form only a fraction of the UK fleet, the number on our roads is increasing at a dramatic rate. ‘Those in the know are looking to electric vehicles,’ says Hometyre’s Andy Lawrence. ‘As electric gets quicker, more stylish and affordable, there’ll be far more of them on the road.’

A major barrier to wider take up of electric vehicles (EVs) is the distance they can travel before they need recharging – improving battery technology already goes some way to solving this, as does a rethink about tyre design. Major tyre manufacturers have already produced EV specific tyres. These tend to have a larger diameter with a narrower width than on a normal car wheel. Putting less rubber on the road reduces rolling resistance so you need to expend less power to drive the car forward.

They’re also quieter, which is important as there’s no engine roar to cover the tyre noise. As Andy Lawrence says, ‘Tyres represent a huge additional noise burden to a vehicle. The more rubber that’s rolling down a road, the more noise it emits, whereas a narrower contact patch on the road surface produces far less.’

Looking further ahead, it might be possible to actually charge vehicles through smart tyres. In 2015, one of the major tyre manufacturers revealed a ‘thermo-piezoelectric’ tyre concept which is claimed to do exactly that. Special materials in the tyre charge the car battery from the sun’s heat when the car is stationary. When it is moving, the friction between the tyre and the road generates a small electric voltage.

Designing for driverless cars

You won’t find self-charging tyres on the market yet, but new cars are already reducing the risks of being on the road. Vehicles are increasingly automated, cars that park themselves with distance awareness sensors, or that brake automatically are already with us. This is all leading to taking human input out of the driving seat, which makes driving safer as computers crash less often than humans.

Tesla Motors’ CEO, Elon Musk, claims that the firm will release its first fully autonomous vehicles in two years’ time. Google’s Sergey Brin meanwhile plans to have Google driverless cars on the market in 2018. These vehicles will likely look and feel very different to contemporary cars – there’ll be less need for a dashboard or steering wheel for a start.

‘The style of a car is going to be important,’ says Hometyre’s Andy Lawrence, ‘but it’s going to have less of a personality because you’re purely a passenger. The focus is probably going to be on comfort. I think cars will have a much more generic look externally and consumers will instead focus on the internal specifications and design.’

And how will the car of the future be maintained? Well, there’ll be no need to take it to the garage, if it can take itself there. If you think that sounds space age, take a look at what it could look like in our main picture - with the car doing the driving you can fit spherical wheels. While they are too much for humans to handle, a computer can use them to park in the tightest of spaces. Goodyear showcased this design at the 2016 Geneva International Motor Show. The future is closer than we all think.

Until your car is able to drive itself, if you need new tyres our Which? Trusted Traders garages and tyre repair services are available in your area now.

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