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Japanese researchers are teaching tires how to generate electricity

Automakers and their suppliers are on a quest to reinvent every part of the car in the coming years, and tires aren’t excluded from this overhaul program. Japanese tire company Sumitomo teamed up with researchers from the Kansai University to develop an experimental tire that generates electricity as it rolls.

The company explained it developed a small, square-shaped device called Energy Harvester that mounts to the insider of a tire and converts friction into electricity. There’s no need to create the friction, because it’s already there. Even normal tires don’t stay round. Their shape constantly changes as the car brakes, accelerates, turns, and goes over speed bumps. This elasticity generates the friction which the Energy Harvester converts into electricity.

The amount of electricity captured by the Energy Harvester is relatively small, so it can’t be used to power juice-slurping accessories like the touchscreen, and it can’t extend an electric car’s range. Besides, it needs to stay in the tire it comes from. That’s fine; it’s useful there. The technology can feed electricity to the tire pressure monitoring system, for example. Looking ahead, it could also allow tires to communicate more information to the car’s onboard computer. Imagine if your wheels could send you a message when they’re out of alignment, or when they detect a suspension problem.

Sumitomo’s Energy Harvester isn’t ready for mass production yet, but the company is confident that its technology will appear on a series-produced car sooner or later. It pledged to continue developing the technology with the help of Japan’s Science and Technology Agency. There’s no word yet on when it will appear in showrooms, or how much it will cost.

Other tire companies are working on different innovations. After years of research, Michelin and General Motors joined forces to begin testing airless tires on public roads by the end of 2019. These see-through tires never go flat, so they’ll make changing a wheel on the side of the road in a rainstorm a problem of the past. If everything goes according to plan, the first car fitted with Michelin’s airless tire technology will arrive in showrooms by 2024.

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