Reinventing the wheel: Why smart tyres give the IoT real grip

Reinventing the wheel: Why smart tyres give the IoT real grip

The race is on to develop smart tyres that rely on IoT connectivity to deliver greater safety, increased fuel efficiency, and longer tyre life, as Jessica Twentyman reports.

A worn or under-inflated tyre on a moving vehicle is a hazard. In 2016, tyre-related incidents on British roads led to eight fatalities and 120 serious injuries, according to Highways England, the government-owned company in charge of maintaining and improving the country’s motorways and A-roads.

Government figures also suggest that one in 12 tyres on heavy goods vehicles is dangerously under-inflated, with the number standing at one in eight for cars. As Stuart Lovatt, Highways England’s road safety lead, observed at the close of last year’s Tyre Safety Month held each October, “This can lead to everything from frustrating congestion caused by breakdowns to catastrophic collisions and tragic loss of life.”

In short, tyres need to get smarter – but the good news is that there is a great deal of work underway in this area. Big-name tyre manufacturers such as Bridgestone, Michelin, Goodyear, and Continental are all experimenting with IoT-connected sensors and software platforms to measure and monitor tyre performance.

In late March, for example, Continental announced the launch of ContiConnect, a new digital tyre monitoring platform for commercial fleets. For now, it’s only available to fleet operators in the US, Canada, Malaysia, and Thailand, but the company has said it will introduce it elsewhere in Europe and Asia later this year and into 2019.

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Sensors, readers and software

There are three elements to ContiConnect. First is a tyre sensor, mounted on the inner liner of the tyre to measure tyre pressure and temperature. ‘Intelligent tyres’ are available to buy from Continental for trucks, buses, and earth-moving vehicles with the sensor pre-fitted, but it can also be retrofitted to existing tyres. Either way, it uses Vodafone’s IoT SIM technology.  

The second part of the system is a yard reader station – a ‘gateway’ installed on a company’s premises that its commercial vehicles have to pass regularly. For example, it could be positioned close to the washing bay, petrol pumps, or a security checkpoint. The yard reader station is the connecting component between the tire sensor and Continental’s software platform, reading data off the sensors as a vehicle passes and sending it to the back end for analysis.

Third, there is the underlying software. This includes a web portal, which employees at the fleet operator use to monitor tyres. It shows them, for example, the history of a particular tyre and enables them to perform retrospective analyses.

But the system also sends out notifications, by email or SMS, to fleet managers when particular issues are identified and maintenance work is needed. According to Continental’s executive vice president of commercial vehicle tyres in the Americas, Paul Williams, this means higher vehicle uptime and less general maintenance.

“Fleets no longer have to rely on performing tyre pressure checks on tens, hundreds, or even thousands of tyres on their vehicles,” he says. “With ContiConnect, they will know immediately upon returning to the fleet terminal whether any tyres have low pressure. Leveraging the IoT save fleets time and money by protection their tires and improves safety for everyone who drives on the roadway.”

Smart Tyres Continental ContiConnect
Credit: Continental

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Smarter and smarter

But tyre pressure and temperature are only the start. A smart, IoT-enabled tyre might also collect data on road conditions or driver behaviour, for example. Did this truck hit a pothole on its last trip? Does this driver have a history of frequent sharp braking? Ultimately, a smart tyre might be able to adjust the pressure and width of tyres to suit different driving conditions – for example, when a snowstorm strikes mid-journey.

While many commercial vehicles are already fitted with a tyre pressure monitoring system (TPMS) of one kind or another – usually proprietary to the vehicle maker – many of these respond only to catastrophic failures, such as a nail in the tyre or a blow-out caused by a pothole. An IoT approach makes sense in terms of the ongoing data it provides, as well as in the range of data.

It’s no surprise, then, that the race is on to create smarter and smarter tyres. For example, there’s Pirelli’s Cyber Car strategy, unveiled at the Geneva International Motor Show. This approach enables each tyre to interact with a car’s onboard computer for a safer, more economical drive. The first tyres fitted with Cyber Car are due to arrive later this year, with several car manufacturers already working to integrate the tyre maker’s new technology into their own, onboard ‘infotainment’ systems, Pirelli claims.

Also at the Geneva show, Goodyear went even further, showcasing a futuristic concept tyre, ‘Oxygene’, which features living moss growing within the sidewall. According to the company, “this open structure and the tyre’s smart tread design absorb and circulate moisture and water from the road surface; this allows photosynthesis to occur and therefore oxygen gets released into the air.”

Intriguingly, the tyre is said to use light communications – or LiFi – to provide high-capacity mobile connectivity, connecting the tyre to the IoT and enabling it to communicate with on-board computers.

Oxygene may still be some way off, but earlier this year, Goodyear launched Tire Optix, a subscription-based tyre management programme that, like ContiConnect, incorporates sensors, a mobile app, and a cloud-based platform.

Internet of Business says

It’s not just tyre manufacturers that are looking to reinvent the wheel with new smart tyres. At the announcement last week by Microsoft that it intends to spend $5 billion on IoT programmes over the next four years, the software giant also revealed that an Indian start-up, Tyre Express, is using its Azure IoT Hub cloud service as the foundation for its service for fleet operators.

“The new IoT platform helps monitor tyre performance in real time, to help customers take suitable action and improve operational efficiency, reduce costs and improve profitability,” according to Microsoft’s announcement. It also noted that operating a vehicle with tyre pressure 20 percent below the correct pressure can increase fuel consumption by 5-10 percent, and reduce tyre life by 15-20 percent.

That’s important, because for fleet operators, tyre costs typically come second only to fuel costs. A technology that delivers both longer tyre life and better fuel efficiency – as well as greater safety – isn’t likely to fall flat with fleet-operating companies.

Read more: Pirelli smart tyres underpin its Cyber Car strategy