I Want New Wheels
It's a really hard imagination exercise, especially as we've been surrounded by wheeled objects for so many years now and simply take this invention for granted. It's like asking a teenager to imagine the actual world without internet... pretty tough one, isn't it?
How Could They?
Yep, this is the first thing popping in our minds, as well: how could people have done things without having at least some sort of primitive wheeled vehicles. One of the most reasonable answers is that they were either walking and dragging things behind them, or were riding some beasts and had said things dragged behind the beasts.
At any rate, the very notion of “transportation” was probably not even in its infancy back then and life was already wonderful if people made it through the winter alive, escaped from being devoured by wild animals, made it to see their offspring or cracking the neighbor's skull and claim ownership over his woman and altogether petty possessions.
It really Gave the World A Spin
Scientist estimate that wheels were invented around 8000 B.C., and the oldest wheels appear to have been visually documented around 3500 B.C. Before that, we can only speculate that transportation began with primitive sledges and somehow one day a roller was added.
Having objects rolling over cylindrical support was most likely one of the first dramatic improvements. In the end, adding two wheels on an axle opened the way to modern-era transport, with all the improvements and refinements we've seen during the last hundred of years.
From Metal to Rubber
While old wheels usually consisted of wooden discs kept in place on an axle, they were very prone to physical damage occurring due to water or simply the rocky surfaces they were used on. It's easy to see the highly impractical solution of carrying multiple such wheels over great distance – they will add to the burden rather than make things easier.
So one day, someone thought of adding a metal piece on the outer surface of the wheel and thus make it impervious to the sharp rocks. It was the day the modern wheel started developing.
Later on came the spoked wheel and things became lighter. It was most likely around 2000 B.C. When the first spokes were mounted on rims, and it's so funny that relatively little has changed since then. We're now traveling quite fast on technology that's 4000 years-old, give or take. Maybe it's time for something new...
Save for some refinement in the technological manufacturing process and the running surface, the ancient wheel has remained virtually the same. Wheels have evolved, it's true, but not as much as other things.
For starters, better wheels have allowed man to reach unimaginable speed. No longer than 200 or so years ago, people thought that human beings can't stand speed in excess of 16 km/h (roughly 10 mph), or that higher speed will make the human body stop breathing. Today we do 160 km/h (100 mph) on almost any mid-displacement motorcycle and thrice this speed on top-drawer machines with special design.
Later, John Dunlop took things even further and created an inflatable rubber tire for his son's bicycle, while in 1867 Thomson was making a comeback with the solid India-rubber tire patent.
It was the “game on” signal for the whole industry, and the world has voraciously devoured billions of tires during the last 150 years, with an ever-increasing need for even more. Once more, since the inflatable tire breakthrough, a lot of time has passed with nothing but rather small changes.
Air inflating the tires was pumped in thinner rubber tubes and their pressure kept the outer layer firm, while absorbing the shocks. Technological advances in rim manufacturing led to the inner tubes being no longer needed, and tubeless wheels have rapidly spread through the industry. And things seem to have stopped in this point, at least at the larger scale.
Today's deal: air
Today, most vehicles run on tubeless, with rather few exceptions. Solid wheels are used in heavy machinery and military, impervious to punctures, continuing to roll even after being shot at or stabbed. However, these aren't a practical solution for everybody else due to weight leading to increased fuel consumption.
Motocross motorcycles run on mousse, a circular spongy material inserted between the metal rim and the tire and replacing the air inside a traditional tube. Mousse though cannot offer higher pressure and is used in dirt racing mostly. Even so, there are countless occasions when the insufficient opposing force (read “pressure”) will cause the tire to fly off the rim, losing the mousse core and stopping the operation of the vehicle.
Some bikes still use tubes, mostly because they tend to withstand the rough boulders on stony paths better. While hitting hard on some rock and ending up with a bent rim will normally cause pressure loss in a tubeless wheel, the tubes rims, will keep on rolling, even if significantly damaged.
Since the purpose of this piece is not to stir up a battle of tubeless vs. tube rims, let us look a bit into the future.
Rims or wheels?
This question is at the very foundation of the whole story. I figured this out as I was writing a piece on some high-tech state-of-the-art carbon fiber racing rims. Set aside the price as it's of a lesser importance in a principled discussion, and think about the sheer convenience: extremely sturdy and unbelievably lightweight, these rims still use rubber tires and air.
Some other interesting idea came with rims using a hardened polycarbonate “monospoke” if I might call it so. Spare the spokes and install a thick disc of polycarbonate and the hub in the middle. It looks like the vehicle is floating magically, it’s brutally expensive and comes with two major downsides.
The first one is dirt, and it matters very little if we consider the brake pad dust or mud, the second issue being crosswinds. Riding fast in strong changing crosswind with two “full” wheels is not funny; it's not funny even with a normal motorcycle in strong wind, anyway. The full rims equal increased drag and result in poor steering and potential crashes.
And now, back to the question: we've been so used to speak about the rim-tire combo as the natural order of things and now fail to understand that there might be other ways to do things. How about simply losing the air?
McLaren, Bridgestone and many other big names in the vehicle-related business are working in this direction. It's even more heartening to see smaller designers and researchers groups experimenting with ideas that may seem a bit on the wacky side, but which in my eyes represent the future.
These guys have managed to escape the traditional rim-tire conundrum and envision the new, modern-era wheel as a new concept, with a different approach. Replacing the air as the component which keeps everything in place means no more flat tires in the first place.
Since the new-type wheel bears the weight of the vehicle above it in a different way with air having nothing to do with it, the fear of running flat is gone. Even more, the rubber surface in direct contact with the road could be further developed, now that pressure, shape, and her restrictions have been eliminated.
This could result in better grip, better steering, better braking and better mileage. And again, no more flat tires. Brian Russel of Britek brings the ERW or Energy Return Wheel, and having already developed the first units to equip bicycles, with prospects of extending the range of application.
Maybe it’s time our industrial civilization changed something about the (most likely) oldest invention still in use. There may be some ready to remember us about that “don't fix it if it ain't broke” saying, but I really doubt it's the case here: there is nothing broken with the wheels as we know it, it's just about the technical advance and better transportation, bikes, cars, motorcycles and all.
We have dreamed about flying cars and magnetic levitation and gravity engines for so many years and that technology is yet far away into the future, most likely. I strongly believe that we should open our ears and hear the throes of a new era in the history of the wheel. I still like my old bike with its corroded rims and tube tires; it's just that I want new wheels.