Electric cars face a serious tire conundrum

To be fair, the bigger wheels really do look cool, and you can go from New York to Cleveland non-stop with them. But when it comes to tires – where the rubber literally meets the road – the battle between physics and aesthetics is increasingly fierce. The latter usually wins out, as people who buy (and build) electric cars prefer bigger, fatter tires that offer great looks but less efficiency.

“The most important thing is the distance a car can travel, so the more slippery the wheels, the better,” says Richard Scheer, Chevrolet’s head of exterior design. “But even in the world of electric cars, people tend to trade distance for cool wheels.”

The physical recipe for a high-performance tire is fairly simple: narrow (so less air blocking), small circumference (so less energy needed to turn), material that doesn’t grip the road too much, and a hub cap that covers well (to reduce air turbulence inside the circle).

And yet, car company executives and engineers must find confusingly complex compromises when actually building a car. A little less size and/or grip and the vehicle is already sacrificing mileage and efficiency. The same goes for petrol-guzzling machines, but electric cars are generally significantly heavier than similarly sized internal combustion cars, which means their tires have to withstand higher pressures and wear more quickly. In addition, they are significantly quieter, causing tire engineers to turn their heads with the noise – sometimes even acoustic foam is injected into the rubber cavity.

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