Remember the Mach Five from Speed Racer? Hyundai certainly does, including how the fictional car’s steering wheel had buttons for all sorts of fantastic driving functions. While an invincibility shield hasn’t been invented yet and deployable cutting blades probably won’t pass pedestrian safety standards, Hyundai has been working on a feasible version of Speed Racer’s belt tires for extra traction on slippery surfaces without the need for tire chains or studs.
For younger readers who haven’t seen the original Speed Racer anime or read the manga, here’s a little bit of context. Decades before Initial D, Speed Racer was the first popular anime about racing. Even more than 55 years later, it still holds up well, and maintained enough cultural relevance to get a Hollywood adaptation in 2008. In the live-action film directed by the Wachowskis, the Mach Five’s belt tires get replaced with deployable crampons, but the technology Hyundai has unveiled is more faithful to the original.
At the heart of what Hyundai calls “snow chain-integrated tire technology” lies shape memory alloy, metal that changes silhouette when electric current is applied. Chevrolet used it for venting excess air pressure from the C7 Corvette’s cabin when the hatch is being closed, and Hyundai believes it’s durable enough for tires. Hey, why not? With the power off, these metallic bands sit well below the surface of the tread, firmly out of the way of excess wear.
However, when extra grip over icy terrain is desired, activating the electronic tire chains sends electric current through each alloy wheel and into each metallic traction band. The shape memory alloy then changes profile to protrude from the tread of the tire and bite into slippery surfaces much like snow chains. The result? Better grip on ice and packed snow without studs or chains protruding on dry pavement, and a very audible reminder of when a tire’s tread is worn out.
This contrasts with automatic snow chains seen on heavy trucks, as those consist of chains attached to a movable, rotating head, which is then attached to a live axle. When deployed, the chains are sandwiched between the drive axle tires and the ground, resulting in increased traction. While great in concept, attempting to package a system like this on any car with independent rear suspension would likely result in four-letter words, partly due to the sheer number of moving suspension parts the massive automatic snow chain components could interfere with. Hyundai’s deployable strips? Those should theoretically work with spaghetti-like multilink independent suspension, no problem.
Mind you, the way Hyundai demonstrates the technology comes with a few downsides, namely the pesky requirement for special wheels to fit these shape memory alloy bands. We’ve seen this play out before multiple times, with fully-metric Michelin TRX and Michelin PAX tires that proved to be expensive pains in the asses of anyone who didn’t own a Bugatti Veyron. Actually, the all-metric, plastic-ringed run-flat PAX tires are probably also a pain for Veyron owners judging by each tire’s five-figure price tag.
Then there’s the fact that tires move and flex as you drive on them. What will a nasty pothole strike do to a traction band? What about sidewall roll, a real threat when you have a teenager or a 57-year-old teenager in the house? I’m sure Hyundai’s engineering team is full of smart people, but wouldn’t you just love to know what the weak points of this design are? What kind of added mass can one expect? What sorts of dry-road traction compromises will one have to make over a tire that doesn’t have this technology? We have lots of questions, just as we had questions about Hyundai’s recent “Uni-Wheel” meant to change electric vehicle drivelines entirely.
Intriguingly, this tire isn’t just a flex of technical prowess. Hyundai claims that it’s patent-pending in Korea and the U.S., and mass-production is being considered. I’d be interested in seeing how these do against studless winter tires, seeing as the latest crop of those is downright excellent. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if performance margins don’t work out to be vast, since anything that makes our childhood cartoons come to life is pretty damn cool.
(Photo credits: Hyundai)
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