Add one more to the list of “smart” things we’ve come to know in recent years: the smart tire.
For the longest time — more than a century — tires were just rubber doughnuts. In later years, tires got an edge, called a bead, that held it to the wheel’s rim. But conventional tires are not without their flaws. With little if any warning to the driver, tires puncture, rip, skid on water and ice, lose pressure or abruptly go flat in the left lane on the George Washington Bridge. At rush hour. They are anything but smart.
Enter the Pirelli Cyber Tire, a high-tech component stuffed with advanced sensors that can radio information and warnings to an electronic receptor in an automobile’s cockpit. If the car is slipping in a puddle, the tire knows. If traction is being lost, the tire knows. The information can warn the driver to make corrections, or, in some cases, “tell” the car’s control unit to adjust engine speed, traction control or other settings.
The devices are capable of “talking” to a 5G wireless network, allowing them to communicate with drivers in other receiver-equipped vehicles or, for example, a wireless infrastructure at a racetrack.
And if there’s no driver in the car?
“Our system would add the ‘touching’ dimension to the visual in autonomous driving,” said Corrado Rocca, head of research and development for Pirelli’s smart tire project. “For example, you can imagine that an auto is receiving information from the road about how to avoid an obstacle or pedestrian, telling it, ‘Slow down.’ It will complement the visual data from cameras — from lidar, sonar, radar. It is the next step.”
The implanted sensor, as Mr. Rocca describes it, is shaped like a small sombrero, about the size of a quarter, and contains a processor, a radio and communications electronics. Using sophisticated software, it relays data to the car’s engine control unit, also known as an engine control module. Pirelli is planning to offer performance-car owners in the United States an aftermarket cockpit-mounted device that, paired with sensors in the company’s high-end Trofeo tires, can communicate information about tire condition, lap timing and track positioning.
“We are also talking with a number of car manufacturers about integrating the systems, but it’s a lengthy process, three to five years,” Mr. Rocca said. “It’s not only adding our technology, but integrating it with all the software” in place in the cars.
Pirelli recently tested an Audi fitted with the Cyber Tires. Mr. Rocca said it was able to transmit information through a 5G network to another car about wet road conditions.
At the moment, plans for the Cyber Tire in racing environments are vague, although it would seem that Formula One cars would be the ideal test bed. For the next three years, Pirelli is the sole supplier of tires for all Formula One teams under a contract with the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, Formula One’s governing body. Such an arrangement is not unusual: Michelin supplies tires for all teams in the Formula E electric-car racing series, and the company is working with a tire sensor for those cars that monitors air pressure.
“There are stringent rules in Formula One, rules of the game that are outside our scope today,” Mr. Rocca said. “We are not focused on that now. But in the future …” He let the sentence hang.
Pirelli is pursuing other advancements in tire development for mainstream vehicles, including issues of materials, weight and road noise, and thermal behavior. One instance of racing tech migrating to road use is the simple bead that fixes the rubber to the rim.
“There are huge stresses on the rim and the tire in Formula One,” said Mario Isola, who heads Pirelli’s racing program.
While skeptics argue that the concept of technology transfer is just a marketing ploy, carmakers like Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz have long emphasized the relationship between the pits and the showroom. Some examples include:
Disc brakes. Braking is crucial, and it was Jaguar in the 1950s that “borrowed” an invention from the aircraft industry. If disc brakes, which were less likely to fade or overheat, could stop a landing plane, imagine what they could do for a speeding car. A Jaguar C-Type with disc brakes won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1953. Most series production road cars in 2020 have discs instead of drum brakes, at least in the front.
Antilock brakes. These were also adapted from aviation use and showed up in Formula One cars in the early ’60s. They became common in road cars years later.
KERS. The kinetic energy recovery system might be the ultimate example of racing’s stop and go. It was introduced for the Formula One 2009 season. With KERS, kinetic energy (that energy used to brake) is stored in a battery and then reused to give a boost of power to an engine. Ferrari has shown the system in a concept road car, but the cost will have to drop significantly before it becomes a mainstream product.
Turbocharging. Turbos took off in racing thanks in part to Renault, which used compressor-driving power in Formula One in the ’70s. Turbochargers give smaller engines higher performance, allowing carmakers to reduce engine cylinder size and increase fuel efficiencies.
Carbon fiber. The use of this material, now found in mainstream products from BMW, Ferrari and others, was spurred by its adoption in Formula One and aerospace. The substance — first used by Thomas Edison — is much stronger than aluminum, and lighter. Some carmakers, like Cadillac, use it for decorative trim, but its real value is saving weight and adding strength to a vehicle’s hood, roof and other exterior bits.
At the end of the day, winning a race is one thing; putting that technology to work in road cars — and selling lots of those cars — is quite another.
“I can tell you that companies like Mercedes, Renault, they’re not in Formula One just because they love the sport,” said Mario Andretti, who stopped to chat while walking the pit lane at the recent Formula One race in Austin, Texas. Mr. Andretti won the 1978 Formula One World Championship, as well as four IndyCar titles, including the Indianapolis 500.
“A lot of development goes on here, because of the vigorous testing being done,” Mr. Andretti added. “And there’s a sense of urgency to all of this work. Formula One is at the leading edge of technology, that’s its DNA, and that’s why the manufacturers spend the money that they do to be involved.”