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How Pirelli's Robo-Tyre will make you faster
Sherlock Holmes knew a thing or two about the importance of detail. “It has long been an axiom of mine,” said Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective, “that the little things are infinitely the most important.”
Clearly Mr Holmes wasn’t referring to the size of the sensor on Pirelli’s upcoming ‘Cyber Tyre’, but the analogy works. For this sensor measures in at just over 1cm3 in size - tiny, then - and will soon be responsible for turning you into a bona fide Driving God. Yep, caps and all.
Pirelli’s next generation of smart tyres will be capable of ‘speaking’ to your car, providing up-to-the-millisecond information on condition and available grip levels. Yes, that tiny sensor essentially turns the wheel into a live sensor. Maurizio Boiocchi, Pirelli’s general manager for technology, gave TG.com the lowdown on this revolutionary new band of rubber that could - could - turn you into A Stig.“We started several years ago in order to exploit this concept of electronics inside the tyre,” Maurizio explains. “What happens below the contact from the footprint to the ground, the unique areas in which the vehicle is touching the ground and interacting with forces to define performance… this is quite a difficult job to explore.”
It all begins with that tiny little sensor. “We use either one sensor or up to three,” explains Maurizio, “depending on what we want to achieve. Normally we use one sensor for a ‘safety’ tyre, and two or three sensors for a ‘performance’ tyre.”
The sensors are then inserted directly into the belt - the tread area of the tyre - where it sends out a ‘predigested’ signal to a small black box inside the car, kicking off a dialogue between the ABS, ESP and other onboard systems, as well as supplying the driver with vital information.
Information like friction, the force of contact between tyre and road, pressure, temperatures, average load and number of revolutions. “In a car the electronics are very sophisticated,” Maurizio says, “because we have all the information in this case, in real time. It’s then related with all the forces acting under the footprint of the tyre. How much potential grip you can have, the measure of aquaplaning if it is wet…” In other words, the tyre will not only provide information about itself, it will ‘read’ the road conditions and give the driver just the right amount of detail.
But not too much. “If you give too much information you can confuse the driver, or worse, the driver might not listen to any of it,” reckons Maurizio. But what does the driver do with this information?
“You can have a sort of monitoring system and offer to the driver some warning that you are too close to the limit of your car, to drive slowly,” he adds. “Or for instance if you imagine it linked with a sat nav, you can see in advance that a band of weather is arriving with a certain amount of rain, and you will have a certain amount of grip.” It’ll also give you information on your optimal speed, too.
And what about a setup where the sensor feeds you exact braking distances to your head-up display in real time depending on the road condition? “This could be a real number acting on the braking system,” says Maurizio. “But you only have to be aware of the fact that the distance you are measuring across might not be stable - there might be puddles in the middle. What’s important is the device is listening to these instant condition changes and acting properly.”
The sensor-laden tyre won’t only be good news for safety, but performance too. “In terms of sporty vehicles,” Maurizio said, “we substantially improved the maximum lateral g, by simply optimizing how the footprint had to be in a certain hard handling circuit. This is important for very extreme applications where the advantages are normally hard work for all the teams.”
Stephan Reil, the head of Audi’s Quattro division, agrees. “In my opinion, the tyre is probably the most underestimated part of the car,” Reil recently told TG. “You can ruin everything with a bad tyre, and in that moment the performance of the car is lost.
“When you’re developing your race car - or indeed road car - you have the engine guy, who works for a few weeks and manages to get a lap time two tenths faster.
“Then you have the suspension guy who after a couple of weeks manages to go another two tenths. Then you have the guy who I call has the ‘black gold’, the tyre guy. He puts on a new tyre, and you get seconds quicker. That’s how important tyres are to performance.”
The cyber tyre - in less sophisticated form - is currently being trialled on a fleet of trucks, and could soon appear in production on high-performance sports cars. However, Pirelli concedes it’ll be a little while longer before it makes its way to your garden-variety Mondeo. “We’d need a couple of years before a normal, medium car,” Maurizio said.
So we’re still a way off, but the era of the RoboTyre is on its way. Ready your finest ‘maximum g’ face…