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How Autonomous Cars Could Lead To Radically Redesigned Tires

Goodyear reinvented the wheel—literally—to show how self-driving cars could utilize complex tire geometry.

At the Geneva auto show last week, Goodyear revealed a futuristic concept for tires. It's called the Eagle 360, an axle-free, 3-D printed sphere that uses magnetic levitation technology to move freely beneath the car itself.

Goodyear's proposal is actually pretty sensible. A sphere offers the greatest potential for maneuverability and lets a car travel in any direction. With wheels that take advantage of that fact, a car outfitted with Eagle 360s can fit into tighter spaces or steer around obstacles more precisely than conventional cars can—in part thanks to the maglev that lets the tires swivel below the car. Taking cues from the surface of brain coral, the tire supposedly offers more traction, thanks to the multidirectional grooves and treads, which prevent aquaplaning on wet streets.

While seeing a car hover over four globes feels sci-fi, most of the technology is grounded in what's available today. Originally developed in the 1970s, maglev is used to propel Shanghai's train system and Japan has been testing an ultra-high-speed train for use the near-ish future. While the technology exists now, it's unclear what it would take to implement it on cars today. So are crappy parallel parkers doomed to wait until autonomous driving is the norm?

The answer is pretty simple. Humans aren't equipped to operate a car in which all four wheels can move in infinite directions. Could you imagine what the steering wheel would need to look like? It's hard enough for drivers today to keep their hands at 10 and 2. But self-driving cars open the door for improvements—such as radically redesigned tires—to the driving experience that just wouldn't be possible if people were in control. Before we get to the point where cars will levitate over spherical wheels, though, there are a number of UX issues that designers will have to tackle—including inspiring the trust that machines will do a better job at driving than humans can.

It's a tall order for automakers and one that hasn't gone so well recently—looking at you, Elon Musk—despite the fact that 90% of car accidents are because of human error. Until we're willing to cede some control over to computers, and until Goodyear figures out how to mass-manufacture its maglev tires, I'll just have to be content imagining what it's like to do doughnuts in one of these things.

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