Green Technology Keeps Tires Properly Inflated as You Travel
|Written by Gene Quinn
Patent Attorney & Founder of IPWatchdog
Zies, Widerman & Malek
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Posted: Feb 2, 2011 @ 7:25 am
Wheelpump Corporation, the developer of an automatic tire pressure maintenance technology for passenger cars and light trucks, announced yesterday that evaluation prototypes and design specifications for the Loewe™ on-wheel pump are now available to automobile manufacturers and component OEMs. The patented on-wheel pump design can be integrated into typical passenger car wheels, and as the vehicle is driven under normal usage the pump maintains proper tire pressure. The innovation here is unlike the tire pressure monitoring systems that are federally mandated on all new light passenger vehicles in the United States. This on-wheel pump actually compensates for the under-inflation that typical monitoring systems only attempt to warn drivers about.
The patent that covers this ingenious innovation is U.S. Patent No. 7,357,164, titled “Tire pressure maintenance system.” According to the patent, the device automatically maintains a desired inflation pressure of the interior of a tire mounted on a wheel of a vehicle. To accomplish this a magnetic element is attached to a stationary part of a wheel assembly and a compressor, such as a microcompressor, is mounted on the rotating wheel. As the microcompressor passes near the magnet it is automatically engaged. The compressor performs at least one cycle per wheel revolution and replaces normal car tire leakage.
The problem the invention solves is one of safety, at least as told by the company in its press release and in the patent. The Background in the patent explains: “Under-inflation of vehicle tires is dangerous, deadly, and common. Under-inflation is involved in hundreds of thousands of accidents, tens of thousands of injuries, and hundreds of fatalities annually in the U.S.” The Background goes on to explain that Congress has stepped in to address the issue: “In hope of reducing the unacceptably high rate of accidents, injuries, and deaths related to under-inflation, the United States Congress passed the TREAD Act of 2000 that requires tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMSs) on all new light passenger vehicles in the U.S. Consequently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed a safety standard requiring that as of 2007, all new passenger cars, trucks, multipurpose passenger vehicles, or buses under 10,000 pounds must be equipped with a TPMS to warn a driver when any tire is under-inflated by 25% or more.”
These innovative pumps are billed as low-cost and highly reliable, contain no batteries or other electronics that demand careful handling or on-going maintenance, and require no changes to tire construction or mounting. The rotation of the wheel over small distances that are easily traversed by drivers on a monthly basis is sufficient for the wheel pump to offset any pressure loss due to tire permeation. The pumps also automatically adjust for pressure losses due to changes in altitude or air temperature. They can be used in parallel with the mandated “direct” TPMS designs with no interference.
“There have been numerous attempts to solve this obvious need for maintaining proper tire pressure,” said Richard Loewe, a retired chief scientist at Hughes Aircraft Company and inventor of the on-wheel pump. “I’ve spent twenty years researching the problem, reviewed over 100 applicable patents, and built several experimental models of different designs. Our current on-wheel pump weighs less than one ounce and takes up less than two thirds of a cubic inch of space. Future models are expected to be even smaller. The on-wheel pump built in to each wheel adds a small pulse of air into the tire camber, if necessary, with each wheel rotation. The effect is similar to how an alternator keeps the battery charged. A fully instrumented demonstration test rig has been running since last July, and the ability to produce up to 40 PSI has been observed by several automotive industry experts. We are now ready to work with manufacturers to integrate the on-wheel pumps into their vehicles.”
As laudable as the safety enhancement features of the innovation represented in the ’164 patent, when I first read about this technology the first thing that came to mind was the potential increases in fuel efficiency that could be presented. According to the Department of Energy website, drivers can improve “gas mileage by up to 3.3 percent by keeping your tires inflated to the proper pressure. Under-inflated tires can lower gas mileage by 0.3 percent for every 1 psi drop in pressure of all four tires. Properly inflated tires are safer and last longer.”
About.com did the math and that means that the average person who drives 12,000 miles yearly on under-inflated tires is using an extra 144 gallons of gas every year. At $3 per gallon that means $432 in additional gasoline charges ever year. It also means an 20 pounds of carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere per gallon of excess gasoline, which corresponds to as much as 1.5 extra tons (2,880 pounds) of greenhouse gases unnecessarily introduced into the environment each year. On top of this, under inflated tires alone cost the United States 1.25 billion gallons of gasoline year, which is roughly 1 percent of the total U.S. consumption of 142 billion gallons of gasoline a year. See Popular Science: Tire Inflation to Beat Gas Crunch: Reality Check.
Some will no doubt snicker about “inflating your tires to save gas,” as was done without mercy when then Senator Obama suggested it on the campaign trail in 2008. I never really understood the ridicule for the mere suggestion that drivers properly inflate their tires. Sure, inflated tires won’t mean that our dependency on foreign oil has lapsed, but who couldn’t use an extra $432 in your wallet right about now? It makes no sense to ignore the reality that properly inflated tires make for safer vehicle travel, it saves money and it pollutes the environment less. If you are paying attention those should all be positive things, not negative things deserving of scornful ridicule.
I am an “all of the above” type of guy when it comes to energy. We have a crisis: rising costs, turmoil in the region most responsible for oil production and moritoriums on domestic drilling and building of nuclear facilities. If we personally, on an individual basis are going to see a day when energy is plentiful then we need to adopt an all of the above approach. We need to explore whatever stop-gap technologies can get us between here and a clean energy economy. That means domestic drilling needs to be on the table, nuclear power needs to be on the table and we need to foster the creativity of the American entrepreneur to incrementally create greener, cleaner and more energy efficient devices. We must bridge the gap.
A tip of the hat to Wheelpump Corporation and all other start-up and established companies seeking to be more environmentally friendly and energy conscious. We need more independent inventors pursuing these technologies, we need start-up companies to attract venture capital and we need clean, home-grown American jobs. Incremental innovation is what will bridge the gap between our current energy economy and whatever the sustainable energy economy of the future will be. Let’s just hope that the Supreme Court and the Federal Circuit don’t kill incremental innovation by rendering steps in the right direction obvious because they were inevitable eventually.
About the Author
Gene Quinn is a US Patent Attorney, law professor and the founder of IPWatchdog.com. He is also a principal lecturer in the top patent bar review course in the nation, which helps aspiring patent attorneys and patent agents prepare themselves to pass the patent bar exam. Gene started the widely popular intellectual property website IPWatchdog.com in 1999, and since that time the site has had many millions of unique visitors. Gene has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the LA Times, USA Today, CNN Money, NPR and various other newspapers and magazines worldwide. He represents individuals, small businesses and start-up corporations. As an electrical engineer with a computer engineering focus his specialty is electronic and computer devices, Internet applications, software and business methods.