Goodyear EMEA president Jean-Claude Kihn believes we are “on the verge of a revolution in mobility” and the new Eagle 360 speaks of Goodyear’s readiness and willingness to operate in this context
Spherical tyre boggles the mind, but raises serious questions too
Goodyear has done it again. For the last few years of exhibiting at the Geneva Motor Show, the company has been taking the idea of concept tyres more seriously than most (think of “battery charging, shape shifting tyres” last year and an SUV concept plus “chip in tyre” technology the year before. The goal is clearly to challenge received wisdom and raise questions about the future of tyres – taking a thought leadership role in the markets, but especially with OEMs. This year Goodyear put its Eagle 360 centre-stage in Geneva. Of course the spherical tyre is striking for its shape and the suggestion that it will move the vehicle of the future with a built maglev propulsion system, but what is perhaps even more interesting for the tyre industry is the questions this product raises about future tyre manufacturing, distribution and retail business models. Tyres & Accessories spoke with Goodyear EMEA president Jean-Claude Kihn in order to find out more.
Early on in our conversation Kihn declared his belief that we are “on the verge of a revolution in mobility”. He is, of course, talking about the widespread introduction of electric vehicles into the automotive sector and all that brings. We all know that electric cars are already on the roads, but what Goodyear, Kihn and the firm’s research and development teams are trying to communicate is that a largescale switch to electric vehicles necessarily precipitates a paradigm shift in the tyre market too.
The most obvious feature of the Eagle-360 is its spherical design. Goodyear says the Eagle-360’s shape could contribute to safety and manoeuvrability to match the demands of autonomous mobility. As the multi-orientation tyres would move in all directions, it would be able to reduce sliding from potential hazards such as black ice or sudden obstacles, contributing to greater passenger safety. The shape could also improve ride comfort, providing a smooth ride by creating a fluid, lateral movement. A car could move around an obstacle without changing its driving direction.
The downside with such a shape is that these spherical tyres simply must wear evenly to avoid an uncomfortable ride. But this is a subject the brains behind the project are already aware of. The initial idea is that the same sensors that empower the car and tyre to adapt to road conditions could also be used to alert the vehicle of uneven wear and turn the tyre on its own axis and therefore ensure even wear.
The spherical design also means the product enables the EVs of the future to turn 360 degrees on the spot or in sharp 90 degree chunks. Both could help motorists tackle anticipated parking constrictions. One by-product of this is that less space will be needed to park and therefore entire car parks could fit into smaller areas than is currently practical. Alternatively, the concept’s approach could increase the capacity of public parking areas without increasing their size.
The Eagle-360 also has some surprises in its construction, where it has been designed to imitate nature. Biomimicry is, the tyre manufacturer states, a principle Goodyear often uses in its designs. The tread mimics the pattern of brain coral, with multidirectional blocks and grooves producing a safe contact patch. The groove bottom has the same elements as a natural sponge, which stiffens when dry yet softens when wet to deliver adequate driving performance and aquaplaning resistance. In short, the tread is quite literally adaptive, but without any mechanic that can fail or require service. This sponge-like texture is also designed to absorb water on the road and ejects water from the tyre footprint through centrifugal force to reduce the risk of aquaplaning.
Moving down from the tread towards the core of the product, the tyre is non-pneumatic. Instead the Eagle 360 is filled with specially designed fill that offers similar properties to air, but without the need to maintain inflation. The fact that there is no air also allows space and physical capacity for the sphere’s internal motors. It also allows the vehicle to bear its own weight when not in operation.
Put cars that can literally turn on a sixpence together with all the self-parking and self-driving technologies that we already have and you have a car that can park itself without human assistance in smaller spaces than any of us would want to.
One of the more science-fiction inspired elements of the Eagle-360 comes with its connection to the car. According to the concept, the new tyre would be suspended from the car by magnetic fields, similar to magnetic levitation trains, which would therefore increase passenger comfort and reduce noise.
Of course, this makes things like thrust vectoring – which is already available on electric competition cars – available to the masses, but also a lot more. The concept of fusing all this with the on-board sensors and processing of the future takes it all to the next level.
Goodyear believes the Eagle-360’s connectivity would optimise the tyre’s safety features. Sensors inside the tyre register the road conditions, including weather and road surface conditions, and communicate this information to the car as well as to other vehicles to enhance safety. Finally, because the tread is produced by a 3D printer, customising the tyre based on the region where the driver lives is a new possibility.
All these ideas – however far away they are from serial production – have the makings of a great tyre. However, the way Goodyear proposes it is made is even more remarkable.
New manufacturing paradigms
Goodyear conceives that the Eagle 360 will be 3D printed. Forget the practicalities of whether or not 3D printing such a product will actually be possible (in all likelihood such a complex and multi-layered product will require several production lines and new kind of assembly), there are two huge takeaways – Goodyear sees a future with extremely short production runs and very high levels of customisation; and secondly tyre manufacturing methods will have to change completely.
Of course the latest automated manufacturing technology from the likes of VMI as well as bespoke systems such as Michelin’s C3M and Pirelli’s MIRS have meant short product lines and greater numbers of part numbers are more feasible than ever. However, the suggestion of virtually custom tyre design takes it all to the next level.
The biggest changes would be manufacturing technology and workforce. The old-school tyre production skills of the past may not even be required in the future, while the high-tech robotic engineering of the present will clearly be in demand in the future Goodyear sees. Compounding aside, the change in manufacturing process would also require a huge amount of inward investment in new manufacturing machinery. However, it has to be said that the switch to electric and autonomous vehicle will require this across the automotive industry – especially at the OEM’s level.
Tyre distribution or logistics?
Bespoke manufacture of tyres also raises huge questions about tyre distribution as we know it. With the switch to virtually bespoke tyre production, the need for wholesaling stock and even warehousing is obliterated. Raw materials may be warehoused, but the whole point is that you only make what you actually sell. Therefore this is no excess stock. There aren’t 40 different product lines there are 40 million. While products may be made by circumference, the won’t be such a thing as slow or fast moving sizes. All this could be interpreted as the prognostication of implicit move to increased reliance on third-party logistics and perhaps even so-called manufacturer controlled distribution. The possible implications are perhaps starkest at the wholesale level, but what does this all mean at the point of sale?
Retailer or service provider?
The sharp-eyed amongst you will have noticed that I said an Eagle 360-equipped tyre could alert itself of uneven wear. It can also park itself. It is also designed to alert other vehicles of traffic and road surface hazards and probably drive autonomously. With all this in mind, what happens to the tyres of the future when it comes to changing time? And what does this mean for tyre retailing as we know it?
It seems clear to mean that a vehicle and product environment that autonomous/ electric vehicles and products such as the Eagle 360 point to breaks down the consumer product supply chain as we know it, for at least two reasons.
Firstly, all the bells and whistles a concept tyre such as this point to, necessarily point away from consumers driving to a garage. Rather, they will expect their vehicles to enter maintenance mode and either change their own tyres or take themselves to a point of sale automatically. In this scenario the tyre retailer never meets the consumer. There is no selling process as we currently know it – it is either pre-booked, part of a corporate or lease agreement, or was sold as a package when the vehicle was purchased. Therefore, the tyre retailer takes on the role of service provider for one of the above contracts rather than a pivotal part in the supply chain as they are now.
And secondly, from a marketing perspective a 3D printed tyre such as the Eagle 360 also signifies a large step towards the marketing dream of making the purchase experience about brand and OE-level connections rather than price and other factors. As we have seen, Goodyear introduced the Eagle 360 to the world (and Tyres & Accessories) at the Geneva show at the start of March. That was also the time when the Nokian tyre testing revelations were making headlines. Of course, no-one could have seen this coming but in the hypothetical world of the Eagle 360 the tyre test subterfuge is utterly redundant. Tyre tests as we know them would be redundant because everyone’s product would be a bit different. Right now tests are done by size and speed rating – giving us something to compare. In this version of the future, brand would be the key identifier, making brand and new-fangled distribution key points of competition.
The beautiful thing about concept tyres is that they don’t exist, but they point in a particular direction. And some of the technologies they are based in are either already in use or near to production. In the meantime, it is worth consider what the tyre market could look like in a few years’ time and what the roles the current market strata will end up playing.