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Industry First: JTA, Goodyear Roll Out Airless Tires For Autonomous Test Shuttle

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JTA
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A JTA autonomous test shuttle from Local Motors is pictured with Goodyear's non-pneumatic tires.

JTA’s autonomous shuttle program, called the U2C (Ultimate Urban Circulator), is now a testbed for an airless tire system developed by Goodyear.

The non-pneumatic tire (NPT) and its wheel assembly may be more sustainable, maintenance-free and longer-lasting than traditional tires, according to Goodyear, which developed the tire and assembly.

JTA has an autonomous testing facility, which Goodyear says will make a good experimental environment for the tire as both partners start gathering data on ride comfort, noise and other variables.

“Alternative airless architectures are ideal, particularly in the emerging autonomous transportation environment,” said Michael  Rachita, Goodyear’s senior program manager of  non-pneumatic tires in an email sent to WJCT News. “This is an important milestone as we look to advance mobility today and as we look to introduce the first completely sustainable and  maintenance-free tires by the end of the decade.”  

The tires are being tested on a Local Motors Olli autonomous shuttle. Local Motors is one of the vendors JTA is looking at for its driverless people mover program, which is envisioned to eventually expand and replace the existing Skyway monorail system.

“The Jacksonville Transportation Authority is proud to integrate this innovative and sustainable  technology into our Autonomous Vehicle Test & Learn program as we develop the future of mobility through the Ultimate Urban Circulator,” said JTA CEO Nathaniel P. Ford Sr. in the same email.

Local Motors President Vikrant Aggarwal said airless tires could become the industry standard in the coming years.

NPTs support a vehicle’s weight by using a spoke or web design as opposed to the pressurized air found in  conventional automotive tires.

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Credit JTA
Close up of the Goodyear airless tire.

As to why they might be better, one of the basic ideas is that since NPTs don’t fluctuate in pressure, they could extend tread life by eliminating over- and under-inflation.

JTA and Goodyear said the airless tires on the Olli mark the first time that a NPT and wheel assembly to support autonomous vehicle transportation has been rolled out in a city setting for in-field use.

Although Goodyear and JTA are touting the Olli application as an industry first, the idea of a non-pneumatic tire is not new. 

In 1938, J.V. Martin of Garden City, N.Y., invented a safety tire with hoops of hickory encased in rubber, according to Popular Science.

They've also been used in applications like riding lawn mowers and golf carts for decades. Goodyear and other tire makers are also experimenting with NPTs for cars. Bridgestone revealed its second generation air free concept tires for cars back in 2013, while Michelin touts its version of NPTs for cars as puncture proof.

JTA’s autonomous Olli test vehicle is currently limited to some occasional public appearances where members of the public have been able to either explore or ride aboard it in a controlled environment with a safety operator on board. It’s one of several vehicles JTA has been testing for its U2C autonomous shuttle program.

The U2C program is expected to pick up steam now that the Jacksonville City Council has approved a 6-cent gas tax that goes into effect next year with $240 million earmarked for the U2C project. Federal funding has also been secured for the program.

Some of the first U2C autonomous shuttles are expected to deployed on public streets as part of the BayJax Innovation Corridor, which is a multi-agency effort to showcase emerging technologies along Bay Street in Downtown Jacksonville. 

The U2C system is envisioned to eventually travel on a modified version of the Skyway’s existing elevated infrastructure in addition to traveling at ground level to the sports complex, Riverside and some other urban core areas.

Bill Bortzfield can be reached at bbortzfield@wjct.org or on Twitter at @BortzInJax.