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Rants, Raves, Interesting Science & Awful Puns
September 22, 2007

Airless Tires

Michelin's "Tweel"

One of the things I acquired in the process of writing The Proteus Operation was a greatly increased respect for historical novelists--at least, the ones who try to get their facts right. Much of the book was set in New York in 1939, and it was only when I got down to trying to create scenes of those times that I realized how little I knew. It wasn't so much the major background news events--which are easily obtained--but the small day-to-day details that go into making up a picture. Imagine trying to describe some people talking in a restaurant, for example. What would be playing on the juke box? Did they have juke boxes then? What would the people be wearing, and how much would they pay for a coffee? I mentioned the problem one day to Dick Hastings, the manager of the Sonora public library in Tuolumne County, California, where I was living at the time, and a week or two later he called back and invited me to drop by when I had a moment. Waiting was an invaluable collection of city and subway maps, books and directories, theater and eating guides, store catalogs, and all manner of other materials bringing the New-Deal era to life. And most people think that librarians are just glorified shelf-stockers. That was why the library staff got a special note of thanks in the book's Acknowledgements.

Science fiction writers have a similar kind of need when it comes to the future, too. Readers don't expect the general background scenery to have remained much the way we know it while, say, planetary exploration or intelligent machines have become a reality--it would be a bit like writing in the 1800s about future flying-machine captains riding home in horse and buggy to oil lamps and outhouses. Hence, authors tend to keep an eye open for nifty ideas whose time seems to have come, and with the potential to become commonplace.

One such that I came across recently was a single-piece automobile carrier developed by Michelin that combines the functions of hub, wheel, and tire into self-sprung structure and dispenses with the need for pressurized air. It's designated the "Tweel" and is described at http://www.fastcoolcars.com/airless-tires.htm. Besides the obvious benefits of being puncture-proof, doing away with the need for periodic checking and topping up, and avoiding the expensive air-pressure monitors that are to be the next things mandated for infliction upon buyers of new cars, the Tweel is expected to have two to three times the life of a regular radial, and when it wears thin, it can be retreaded. Additionally, the up-down and sideways stiffness can be engineered independently of each other, unlike the case with an air tire, where increasing the pressure works the same in all directions. This means that lateral movement can be reduced for good road handling without losing the comfort of a soft ride.

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