We can add one more item to the list of "smart" things: the smart tire.
While there have been design advancements in tires over the decades — does anyone even still remember inner tubes? — tires still face many of the issues that have plagued them for more than a century. With little if any warning to the driver, tires puncture, rip, skid on water and ice, lose pressure or abruptly go flat in the left lane of the freeway during rush hour. They are anything but smart.
Enter the Pirelli Cyber Tire, a high-tech component stuffed with advanced sensors that can radio information and warnings to an electronic receptor on the dashboard. If the car is slipping in a puddle, the tire knows. If traction is being lost, the tire knows. The information can warn the driver to make corrections, or, in some cases, "tell" the car's control unit to adjust engine speed, traction or other settings.
The devices are capable of "talking" to a 5G wireless network, allowing them to communicate with other receiver-equipped vehicles. As a result, your tires could know about an obstacle in the road before you do, said Corrado Rocca, head of research and development for Pirelli's smart tire project.
"It is the next step," he said.
The implanted sensor, as Rocca describes it, is about the size of a quarter and contains a processor, a radio and communications electronics. Using sophisticated software, it relays data to the car's engine control unit, also known as an engine control module. Pirelli is planning to offer performance-car owners an aftermarket dashboard-mounted device that can communicate information to the driver.
"We are also talking with a number of car manufacturers about integrating the systems, but it's a lengthy process, three to five years," Rocca said. "It's not only adding our technology but integrating it with all the software" in place in the cars.
Pirelli recently tested an Audi fitted with the Cyber Tires. Rocca said it was able to transmit information through a 5G network to another car about wet road conditions.
And if there's no driver in the car?
"Our system would add the 'touching' dimension to the visual in autonomous driving," Rocca said,
Pirelli is preparing to test the tires in one of the most stressful environments: Formula 1 racing. Sensors in the company's high-end Trofeo tires can communicate information about tire condition, lap timing and track positioning.
Still, at the end of the day, incorporating the technology into a limited number of race cars that cost millions of dollars is a different thing from including it in road cars — and selling lots of those cars. But there's an encouraging history of technology transferring from the racetrack to the showroom.
Disc brakes started showing up in races in the 1950s, with anti-lock brakes joining them a decade later. Turbochargers came into their own via Formula 1 use in the '70s.
"I can tell you that companies like Mercedes, Renault, they're not in Formula 1 just because they love the sport," said Mario Andretti, who won the 1978 Formula 1 World Championship, as well as four IndyCar titles, including the Indianapolis 500, and now heads the racing team Andretti Autosport.
"A lot of development goes on here because of the vigorous testing being done," Andretti added. "Formula 1 is at the leading edge of technology — that's its DNA — and that's why the manufacturers spend the money that they do to be involved."