A Tire That Mends Itself?

Self-repairing tires may be the next driving innovation to hit the road—if leaders can get past some likely resistance to this latest automation.

No one likes to fix a flat on the side of the highway—that is, if the driver has a spare in the trunk. Otherwise, they’ll have to wait for roadside assistance, which can take forever.

A few tire makers want to make that a thing of the past. They’ve started to develop technology that will let a tire seal itself after it’s been punctured by a sharp object. The driver would be none the wiser and could ride on into the sunset—or home, wherever they’re headed.

The innovation—which may start appearing as soon as next year—is just one of the latest ways the sleeping business of tires is upping its game, at a time when more ambitious efforts toward self-driving are stumbling. Some brands, like Goodyear, are also exploring predictive tire-monitoring programs that collect data on performance to predict maintenance. But tire makers that are developing smart-tire technology may have to grapple with resistance and suspicion among customers—the same issue facing innovators across all sorts of industries today, experts say. “It’s a matter of trust,” says Floriane Ramsauer, a client partner in Korn Ferry’s Automotive practice. “Can consumers ever trust technology?”

The answer, say experts, is yes … eventually. History is littered with examples of new technologies that came up against a wall of consumer distrust—and sometimes, outrage. Just think about airbags, brakes, and even car themselves. In their nascent days, these innovations were the subject of public scorn. But the public relented over time as the products improved and became more commonplace. Now, when a driver steps into a car, they don’t often second-guess the safety standards of their airbags.

Still, while building trust may be a matter of time, leaders will also need to assuage consumer concerns now, experts say. Tires enabled by artificial intelligence will likely face the same criticism as the autonomous vehicle—that is, how protected they are from data breaches and catastrophic failures. “The key question is, can we really make smart tires safe?” says Ramsauer. How leaders handle that question will be essential to gaining public trust, she adds.

To get there, experts say, tire makers will need to be transparent about smart-tire technology. They should be honest about what smart tires can and cannot do, and the systems they have in place to handle emergencies like recalls or hacks.

Smart tires also give industry leaders a chance to reposition their companies in the consumer market. That’s because, despite pouring money into research and development, tire makers often are not seen as innovators, says Matt Stencil, senior client partner at Korn Ferry and a member of the firm’s Industrial practice in North America. “But a technology play like this will be a true differentiator,” he says.

Indeed, thanks to a demand for improved tire monitoring, more and more of the world’s leading tire makers are investing in smart-tire technology. So much so that a new competitive sector has emerged. And it’s one that’s proving profitable: the global intelligent-tire and -sensor market is expected to grow to over $77 billion by 2024, according to a recent industry report.

Smart-tire technology can make a significant difference in the market, says Stencil, both for fleet operators and individual drivers. Whether they’re self-sealing or predict maintenance, smart tires can help improve safety, performance, fuel economy, and durability, as well as save money on maintenance costs. “Smart tires can help create a more comprehensive experience for the driver,” Stencil says.