Tech From The Jetsons: Ti-Tires That Never Go Flat

There is a news story making the rounds, except it’s not really a news story. It’s a well written press release by The SMART Tire Company dolled up in news-clothing, and it promises us nickel-titanium “tires,” like the ones used on the Mars rover, that will never wear out or go flat. Good news, everyone! The Jetsons are moving in next door!

At the TCI office (i.e. our regular editorial Zoom call), we all tried to get out of writing this piece, but I lost the curious, three-way game of rock-paper-scissors (aka Roshambo), and so what you’re getting is the snarky and curmudgeonly version of what should be just another feel-good, science-y, cycling story.

Here are some facts. Titanium alloy “tires” were developed for NASA, because they needed a round, roll-y solution that could tolerate no gravity. Pneumatics were out of the question, so a metal mesh was used. Titanium enters the mix, because of all the metals available, it does the best job of flexing and then returning to its exact prior position over a long period of time. That’s why people make bike frames out of it. Up to this point, we are all good.

But the story has some issues as it gallivants across your imagination, things mostly left for final paragraphs in news stories. For example, there is no projected price. The premise of this thing is that these tires are going to end up on bikes (and they may well do that), but without knowing that each one costs $800 (I made that number up) it’s hard to cultivate the necessary suspension of disbelief. It’s also tough to avoid knowing that all the glowingly positive quotes about the product’s potential come from the company. That’s ok in a press release. It’s tough in what tries to be a news story.

You have a heavy metal (yay!!) tire that solves all your problems, until you use it, in which case, it’s probably best just to wrap it in an existing rubber tire.

As you burrow down into this one, you learn that the metal mesh provides better traction than conventional bike tires, BUT they are significantly heavier AND dirt and debris can get in through the mesh. That’s ok, the story says, the mesh will be coated with…wait for it…rubber, that minor detail obviating the traction benefits touted in the opening pitch. That rubber would have the same traction as, um, rubber, and it would wear out, but you could, it is suggested, recoat the tire when its casing finally fails, except we have no idea how that process works or what it costs.

So this is a story about the attention economy and the effective manipulation of headlines to gain eyeballs for a story that doesn’t add up. You have a heavy metal (yay!!) tire that solves all your problems, until you use it, in which case, it’s probably best just to wrap it in an existing rubber tire. But at least it probably costs a lot.

Lest you get the impression that I don’t love science and/or progress, let me just say that I do. I hope, sincerely, that we’re all bumping around on titanium tires in the near future. But this is a story that the cycling press has picked up and run non-critically, because eyeballs, and I hate that as much as I love science.

And so, I threw paper, and both Padraig and Cush smiled as they held their finger scissors aloft, and you got this, instead of a regurgitated press release. You are, entirely, welcome.

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  1. khal spencer says

    An expensive solution in search of a problem.

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