I remember the first time I heard about the Tweel, the Michelin airless tire. It had been introduced as a concept product at the 2005 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Shortly after that debut, I was with another tire industry journalist and we were coming back from an event hosted by a Michelin rival. We were accompanied by that firm’s chief technical officer, and I asked what he thought of the technology, which features a non-pneumatic tire with a polyurethane spoked wheel.
The rival tire executive said it was an interesting technology that, with some further development, could someday find a place in the tire industry. At the time, I personally looked at the Tweel as something to grab attention at the auto show but wouldn’t ever be seen in practical use.
Now, all these years later, after following the Tweel’s journey, it was fascinating to hear the “behind-the-scenes story” from the two men chiefly responsible for the innovation.
Tim Rhyne and Steve Cron, co-recipients of this year’s American Chemical Society rubber division’s Charles Goodyear Medal, are two unassuming engineers who started talking over lunches about potential ways to make non-pneumatic tire technology successful. After years of working in their spare time, they settled on the Tweel design.
Rhyne and Cron hardly seem like “celebrity innovator” types whose invention would be featured on the cover of Time magazine and heralded as the “One of the Most Amazing Inventions of 2005.” After all, both still live in what they call their “starter houses” and drove up together from South Carolina to Northeast Ohio to receive their medals at the rubber division’s Spring Technical meeting.
In our interview, they talked about many of the hurdles they faced along the way. Rhyne said he was never “encouraged” to pursue work on the project, but also never told to stop. Cron told attendees of the rubber division’s meeting that the first attempt “failed in spectacular fashion.” He quipped that continued development allowed the durability of the spokes to rise from 30 minutes all the way to 80,000 kilometers.
Early on, they had to scrounge for any support on the project, but that changed some when the Michelin family’s top brass — Francois and Edouard Michelin — took a liking to the project.
Both Rhyne and Cron are now retired from Michelin, but they remain close friends and have lunch together on a weekly basis.
For the record, they say they don’t talk about the Tweel during their lunches and do indeed have separate interests. Cron is a self-proclaimed “frustrated farmer” and a beekeeper.
Rhyne is a car guy, spending time combining a 2005 Corvette and a 1969 Chevelle. The vehicle looks like the Chevelle but most of the working components come from the Corvette. In case you’re wondering, the combination is known as a “Corvelle.” If it had been the other way around, it would be called a “Chevette,” to which Rhyne added, “Chevrolet ruined that name.”
Having owned one many years ago, I know exactly what he means.
Bruce Meyer is the editor of Rubber News. Reach him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @bmeyerRPN.