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Airless Tires and the Quest for Innovation

If you’ve been following my latest blogs or read my book Tireless, you are likely aware that I have a lengthy and nuanced relationship with the tire industry.

The very first company that I co-founded involved working with commercial tires and retread manufacturing plants. Tires represent almost $270 billion in annual sales, and many do not realize the complexity and applications of tires other than the ones on our cars. You know those huge earthmover machines in mines you see on TV? They have tires that are close to $300,000 each!

Although I have branched out into many other ventures throughout my career, the tire industry will always be special to me. Not only because it’s the origin point of my formative experiences, but because it’s where I first honed my skills in becoming aware of opportunities around me. In the tire world, there is an industry giant that focused on what the world needed and is a world-class innovator: Michelin.

You may have recently begun to hear more about the development of airless tires. These announcements came from Michelin, the same company that invented the first tires with air inside. At the time of this writing, I do not know how practical airless tires will be, given their testing and prototypes. However, if history is any marker, my bet is that Michelin will succeed at creating the first automotive and commercial truck tires that do not require air.

Being somewhat of an industry vet, I have some thoughts on what this could mean for the tire industry, motorists, and the spirit of innovation as a whole.

The Very First Tires

130 years ago, the thought of creating a rubber tire filled with air was considered to be completely unimaginable.

That is, unimaginable until it was brought into reality by the two Michelin brothers. At that time, in the 1880’s, the air-filled tires were for bicycles and carriages, but Michelin did not stop there.

In 1895, Michelin introduced L’Éclair, which was the world’s very first car to “run on air.” It was developed in order to compete in the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race. The world had never seen anything like it. Driving cars led Michelin to create travel guides so the public had information on where they could drive, travel, and explore. Still today, Michelin green, yellow, and red travel guides are used internationally.

Michelin continued to innovate onward into the future. They were a driving force in forging the path for other revolutionary technologies, such as radial tires. At the time, the notion of producing a radial tire was considered impossible. Against all odds, Michelin filed a patent on radial tires in 1946.

Before this innovation, all tires were a bias ply. These were mostly made up of cotton or rayon strands with additional layers called ply rating to handle more load.

Michelin challenged that thinking.

To think a single radial sidewall without several plys could be successful was unimaginable. But now, in the year 2020, over 99% of all car tires are radial and filled with air. Radial tires lasted almost twice as long and saved fuel as well as reducing the use of oil.

Michelin then introduced fuel saving tires in the 1990’s, which they named “Green Energy.” Today, Green Energy tires can be found on Tesla and other electric vehicles because of their incredible energy savings. Several years earlier, they had just introduced “low profile” tires that reduced weight and fuel consumption on trucks and cars—another innovation that all other manufacturers followed. All of the cars we buy today have radial, low profile tires.

How’s that for an industry leading innovator?!

Is an Airless Tire Possible?

Michelin has always been a company filled with the right inspiration, forward thinking innovation, a compassion to develop what both the customer and the world really needs, and the drive to achieve that which is impossible.

If any company can make a successful tire that has cushion ride with no air, my bet would be on Michelin.

I believe that the team at Michelin has the ability to not only look at a situation and see the opportunity but also apply all of their effort toward challenging the status quo. This is an attitude that I greatly admire; one that I would recommend to any aspiring entrepreneur or CEO reading this article.

Be careful how quickly you are to declare what is possible and impossible until you’ve effectively exhausted all the possibilities and opportunities. You may surprise yourself.

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