Michelin Reinvents the Wheel, This Time With Motors

By · June 08, 2011

The Michelin prototype with Active Wheel technology

The Michelin prototype with Active Wheel technology

This is one of the most impressive car I've ever been in. I understand it doesn't look like much. This is a small no-thrill hatchback. You may recognize the body of a Suzuki Splash, which also happens to be the base of the Stromos German electric car I wrote about three weeks ago. But this one is a totally different car—much better one, maybe even revolutionary. It has two great technologies from the future. Or more correctly from the past, but I'm still waiting for them to go mainstream. The first one is in-wheel motors.

The Best Architecture

You want efficiency? Nothing could be more efficient than putting the motor inside the wheel. The Lohner Porsche from 1900, the first ever hybrid car, had electric motors inside its front wheels. That makes it a 110-year old technology, yet when I talk with automotive engineers about in-wheel motors, they always tell me that it's a promising technology for the future. And then there's active suspension. The idea is not new either. It's been around for more than 30 years. The big Infiniti Q45 was the first car where it was available, but it was an expensive option which wasn't offered for long. Few buyers got it and it was quickly discontinued. Citroën, the French brand did it better on the Xantia Activa in 1996, but again there were few takers. It's hardly better today, with some manufacturers saying theirs cars have an active suspension, where they only have an automatic damping control. But Michelin's system is the real thing.

The Michelin Active Wheel from behind

The Michelin Active Wheel from behind

There's no squat and dive or any kind of body roll. It's real and revolutionary because unlike any other vehicle, the wheel hubs are solidly fixed to the car. The suspension is between the hub and the tire, inside the wheel. The complete suspension system fits there. The active element is an electric motor sending power to compress a spring, and yes, it works in real time. I had a ride in the prototype, the Michelin engineer was hard on the brakes, hard on the accelerator, but the car remained at a perfect level. It makes you think that all the other cars are from the stone age. But you have to get ready for this new technology. On a roundabout, you can drive faster than in a normal car. I went through that experience, and that sounds nice when I'm writing it, but unless you've been to an astronaut school, you won't feel comfortable with it. I guess that if I had been driving the car, I would have enjoyed it, but as a passenger, g-forces are no fun. Yet, I appreciate a car with limits higher than my own. I wasn't expecting this Active Wheel technology to work so well when I first learned about it. This is really something that improve the technical design of automobiles.

The Michelin Active Wheel fitted on a a car

The Michelin Active Wheel fitted on a a car

What's surprising is that it doesn't come from a car manufacturer. Michelin is a tire maker, and it certainly doesn't want to become a competitor to its largest customers. But it has shown its technology to all of them, and they were impressed. The problem, if there's one, is that this technology is not something you can add to an existing automobile. The prototype I've been in had its hood filled with batteries and electronic controllers. There were also some inside the car, and you understand that Michelin's engineers had to make several compromises to fit this technology on an existing platform. It could have been much better starting from a clean sheet design. Only small EV maker Venturi responded so far, but the Active Wheel system is so great that I'm confident someone will use it on a large production model at some point.

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