My old Buick politely informed me that I had “low tire pressure,” but it neglected to say which tire it was talking about.
If you’re like me, every now and then you notice a tire looks low—eyeballing is so scientific—and you run down to the local gas station, only to discover the air pump was a) vandalized; b) non-existent; c) requires quarters you don’t have.
Even if you get over those humps and connect hose to tires, you probably don’t know if you’re putting too much or too little air in. A tire gauge? There’s probably one around somewhere. The one on the pump was probably last accurate in 1952.
There has to be a better way! This technology was outmoded when Alf Landon was still Presidential timber. Fortunately, there is. Michelin, working with partner Aperia Technologies, is offering Auto Inflate. The bad news is that right now it’s only available for big trucks, but the good news is the passenger car market is next.
It’s very clever technology, and it’s powered simply by the rotation of the tire. A small device is attached to the wheel hub, and it converts the wheel’s movement into a pumping action that is continually generating compressed air on the fly. It’s also monitoring the tire, and adding air as needed to maintain optimal pressure at all times.
According to Aperia CEO and co-founder Josh Carter, “It’s common for new technology to start in commercial vehicles, but the architecture is very similar for passenger cars, and we’re definitely getting into that market as part of the long-term vision. There’s a big opportunity to make an impact on safety, sustainability and convenience.” Why safety? Under-inflated tires are a big cause of accidents.
Carter notes that the current situation is “a complicated mess,” and it’s easy to agree with him. Even though cars now have fancy sensors that let the driver know when tires are low, they still depend on the driver to actually do something about it.
And the evidence is that most of us don’t know much about tires. The Rubber Manufacturers Association found in its 2015 survey that only 17 percent of drivers are “tire smart” and even know how to check pressure. Half of us have no idea what the correct pressure for our tires is, or where to find it (in the owner’s manual, usually). Four in 10 believe—erroneously—that they can tell just by looking whether a tire is properly inflated.
Heavy-duty trucks should be a big market for the tire tech, and low-hanging fruit for the environment’s sake. Nearly 10 percent of big truck tires are off by 20 psi or more, and less than 55 percent of those tires are within five psi of where they should be. Eighteen-wheelers are the second largest (and fastest growing) transportation sector in terms of emissions and energy use, the EPA says.
There’s no pricing yet for passenger cars, obviously, but Michelin and Aperia say that a truck—with 18 wheels—might cost $2,400 to outfit with Auto Inflate (or Halo, as it’s separately marketed by Aperia). But the good news is that an owner-operator could make that money back in just one year through fuel economy and tire-life savings. Michelin/Aperia claim that if the tech is used on all Class 7 and 8 trucks (there are more than 15 million of them on the road, if you count box trucks) it would save 1.7 billion gallons of fuel and reduce waste by 11 million tires annually.
But I’m still back there fumbling with the air hose. I don’t want to be there. I want to set and forget it when it comes to tire inflation. Stop, what’s that sound? It’s the sound of air escaping from my Miata’s tires in the cold garage.
Here's a closer look on video: