We’re Actually Reinventing the Wheel

Original caption: Carriage wheel. Undated engraving. --- Image by ? Corbis
Original caption: Carriage wheel. Undated engraving. --- Image by © Corbis Photo: Corbis

Reinventing the wheel is considered such an unnecessary endeavor that the very idea has become a metaphor for any task that attempts to improve upon something unimprovable. But what if the entire basis for that cliché isn't quite right? What if the wheel really could use reinvention?

In fact, there are people out there working on it right now. Here are the wheels (and tires) of tomorrow.

The Adjustable Wheel for Unfriendly Terrain

In the remote Malawian village where Ackeem Ngwenya grew up, transporting crops requires walking long distances with a load of cargo atop one’s head. It’s a strenuous, inefficient process, and he’s seeking to change it with Roadless, an adjustable wheel designed to navigate the varied terrain of rural Africa.

A graduate of London’s Royal College of Art, Ngwenya built the wheel, which looks like a small cage made of steel, on a similar principle as the jack in the trunk of most cars. As with a jack, the crank goes through the middle of the wheel, and it either increases or decreases the wheel's height. A shorter wheel has a wider base and is better able to navigate muddy or sandy terrain. A taller wheel provides better ground clearance, making rocky roads more manageable. Ngwenya’s wheel can be wrapped in rubber or wedged inside a typical tire. His hope is that it will let villagers replace manpower with better forms of transportation, be it a wheelbarrow or a truck, despite treacherous roads.

The Un-Poppable Wheel and Tire Combo

The days of riding on air are ending, and Michelin’s Tweel may be the product that helps us emerge from the age of inflation. Introduced as a concept a decade ago, the Tweel looks something like a bigger, more advanced bike wheel. On the outside is a steel and rubber “shear beam,” which wraps around flexible polyurethane spokes. These spokes are connected to a rigid hub where the Tweel meets the vehicle, and like air in tires, they absorb impact.

Last November, a smaller, commercial version of the Tweel, called the X Tweel, went into production. Before Michelin rolls out the Tweel to consumers, it’s hoping to equip commercial vehicles in the “landscape, construction, contracting, refuse/recycling and agricultural industries” with the X Tweel.

The Energy-Producing Tire

When tires roll down the street, they generate heat that goes nowhere and does nothing. Goodyear has a plan for converting that heat to energy. The company’s BH03 tire, introduced last month at the Geneva International Motor Show, relies on an ultrablack exterior that absorbs heat created by both friction and the sun. Using a thermoelectric material, that heat is converted into electricity, which is then fed into the electric vehicle the tires are attached to. At least, that’s the idea. The BH03 is still only a concept.

The Shape-Shifting Tire

At the same time that Goodyear introduced the BHO3, it unveiled the Triple Tube, a self-adjusting tire that can inflate or deflate based on road conditions. The tire, also a concept, works by moving air from a main chamber to three individual chambers. In “eco position” stiffness in all chambers is optimized, while “wet safety position” raises the tread in the center of the tire and provides “high aquaplaning resistance.” These adjustments would all be made by the tire itself. What’s more, the multiple chambers provide protection against puncture. If one chamber goes kaput, there are still two more.

The Foldable Wheelchair Wheel

Not all reinventions of the wheel have to be for cars. The Morph Wheel, originally designed for foldable bikes, is a collapsible wheel for wheelchairs that makes traveling while disabled much easier. The wheels, which are equipped with solid tires, are easily removable and, with a few clicks, fold down from 24 inches in diameter to 32 inches long and a foot wide. That means they fit into “overhead bins, closets and even under your seat during flights,” according to the manufacturer. Unlike most of these other reinventions, Morph Wheels are available today.