As already hinted in my blog post on Resilient Technologies, there has been some interesting news concerning the ‘honeycomb airless tires’: during the 2012 Association of the United State Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition (AUSA), Polaris Defense, a division of Polaris Industries Inc., unveiled ATVs sporting a honeycomb wheel design. A closer look confirms the uncanny resemblance to Resilient’s Humvee tire design.
Polaris Industries And The Resilient Technologies Link
Polaris is a recognized leader in the powersports industry with annual 2012 sales of $3.2 billion. Polaris designs, manufactures and markets innovative, off-road vehicles, including all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) snowmobiles, motorcycles and on-road electric/hybrid powered vehicles. Additionally, Polaris owns two small electric/hybrid powered vehicle manufacturers as well as the KLIM apparel brand.
In a little publicized move (the Resilient Technologies website still makes absolutely no reference to the acquisition), Polaris Industries acquired Resilient Technologies in the second quarter of 2012. The transaction was revealed during the Polaris’ analyst and investor meeting in Las Vegas in July 2012. Polaris presented the Resilient acquisition as part of its ‘growth through adjacencies’ strategy.
The Polaris Non-Pneumatic Tire
The basic value proposition of the airless tire remains the same: an indestructible tire with good shocks absorption capabilities that cannot go flat and doesn’t require air-ups. It doesn’t look like the original Resilient design was significantly changed and Polaris is going after the same target market that Resilient was shooting for: military applications where continued mobility can make the difference between life and death.
For the time being, Polaris has integrated the non-pneumatic tires (NPTs) into its defense division and testing with the US Army already started in October 2012. In-theater conditions have been simulated in one test where a .50-caliber bullet was shot at the airless tire which was then ridden for 5,000 miles without any issues.
Richard Haddad, general manager of Polaris’ military business confirmed: “We drove one tire with a railroad spike in it for over 1,000 miles. The thing drove like it was brand new. These are designed to last the life of the vehicle. This capability gives our troops an edge when operating in rugged, war-torn terrain.”
When Will You Be Able to Ride on NPTs?
Given the history behind the honeycomb tire, the defense division of Polaris was an obvious home for the non-pneumatic tire. As Richard Haddad already hinted, consumer ATVs are next in line since a „never-flat“ tire appeals to farmers, hunters and sports riders alike. As market leader, Polaris makes around 200,000 vehicles a year. Should they really decide to equip civilian ATVs with airless tires, this would become the first broad market application of NPTs (in applications other than solid equipment tires). However, Polaris is yet to announce a target release date.
Airless Tire Pricing
Polaris has not confirmed the exact pricing for the NPTs yet. A first indication says that the price of a single tire could easily exceed $500, making it around 30-50% more expensive than a conventional ATV tire and rim assembly. This is not surprising, breakthrough technologies are rarely cheaper from the start than the incumbent technologies. Airless tires will only become cheaper once they are mass-produced and production technologies mature.
From Humvees to ATVs to Electric Vehicles?
What is interesting in the acquisition of Resilient Technologies by Polaris is the fact that this is yet another occurrence where airless tire technology, originally aimed at cars (or Humvees in this case), moves to a slower speed, lighter weight application.
As Michelin has found out with the Tweel, there are huge challenges in designing a non-pneumatic tire that satisfies the requirements of passenger car tires. ATVs are lighter, slower moving vehicles in a less regulated market. In other words, the homologation hurdles to be overcome for a non-pneumatic tire aimed at the ATV market are much lower than a Humvee type of application.
Though Resilient did demonstrate the honeycomb design on a Humvee, it is unclear how close to production stage that tire ever got. Its fairly safe to assume though that Resilient had still been facing huge design and manufacturing challenges, years of testing and significant investment hurdles before they could have commercialized their NPT. One should not forget that a tire giant such as Michelin, with deeper pockets and legions of engineers, spend seven years developing a non-pneumatic tire. It would have been more than astonishing if a 12-person start-up had beat them to it in only two years.
It will be very interesting to see how Polaris will roll-out the Resilient design across its product lines. Given the fact that Polaris was not just content to work with Resilient Technologies as a supplier, but rather bought the company outright, indicates that they have bigger plans for NPTs.
With Global Electric Motorcars (GEM) and Goupil Industrie SA, Polaris owns two subsidiaries active in the small electric vehicle market. It doesn’t require too much imagination to see the airfree tires move from the ATVs to electric vehicles at some point in the future. Certainly this will require quite some further technological advancements but with the ATVs, Polaris has an excellent test bed to develop the technology further.
Of course, most of this is pure speculation at this point. Polaris has been coy about their acquisition of Resilient Technologies and hasn’t given many insights on how they intend to leverage the knowledge and technology they acquired in the long term. However, given Michelin’s release of the Tweel in October 2012 and Polaris’ announcement the same month, it seems that airless tire technology is slowly but surely maturing and moving towards broader commercial use.
These are exciting times for those of us who are watching this space closely! What do you think? Are we getting closer to seeing airless tires on the road, or off the road for that matter, anytime soon? Feel free to share your comments below.