How Retractable-stud Snow Tires Work

        Auto | Wheels
Winter driving is always risky -- but a good set of snow tires can make a big difference.
Winter driving is always risky -- but a good set of snow tires can make a big difference.
(Creative Commons/Flickr/BLB07030)

Studded snow tires have their plusses and minuses. In the plus column is super traction on icy roads and, potentially, not dying in a snow-filled ditch or sliding off the side of a mountain. On the minus side, metal studs tear up roads like a hungry wolverine, which means summers full of repaving projects that you'll complain about having to pay for. You know you will.

But what if there was another way? What if you could get snow tires mounted that offered good traction for most wintery days and, when the sleet hit the fan, could offer studded traction on the fly? You'd be safe when you needed to be, and considerate of the tarmac the rest of the season, too. There were dreams of making such a tire available in 2009. Q Tires had studs hidden in the treads and were deployed at the push of a button, James Bond-style, by pressurized air. But alas, like George Lazenby's career, Q Tires turned out to be vaporware.

Some dreams die hard, though. In early 2014, Nokian Tyres in Finland -- where they know snow driving -- released a video of its new non-studded studded tire to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the snow tire.

Push-button Studs ... Or Not

With a press of a button, the driver can bring out the studs to improve the grip of the tire.
With a press of a button, the driver can bring out the studs to improve the grip of the tire.
(Courtesy of Nokian Tyres)

The tires Nokian showed in the video were based on the company's Hakkapeliitta 8 SUV studded winter tires. But instead of having stationary studs that bite into whatever they come across -- snow, ice, pavement, flesh -- there are studs embedded in the rubber flush with its surface. When sleet gets real, the driver can push a button that pops just the hard metal pin in the middle of the stud out of its jacket. All the studs on all four tires are deployed at the same time.

Or they would be, if you could get a set of these non-studded studded tires. Nokian's web site says, "The unique stud concept may indeed become a reality one day." The company also won't share the mechanism used for popping the studs out of the rubber, so it's safe to assume that there are teams of mice doped up on Dramamine (to deal with the spinning of the tire) trained to push out the center pins when the computer sends them a signal to do so.

If you're not cool with mice being put to work in this way, or if you have actual winter tire needs beyond fanciful spy-worthy technologies that never make it to real roads, there are of course plenty of other options. There's always that old convertible winter tire standby -- chains. These can be deployed as needed, but not at the push of a button, and not with any help from trained mice. Oh, if only.

Real-world Winter Tires

The ultimate in real-world tire-conversion technology: tire chains.
The ultimate in real-world tire-conversion technology: tire chains.
(Creative Commons/Flickr/rjshade)

If you live in a snowy wonderland, metal studded tires are available, but probably restricted. Several states ban them outright, even notoriously snow-bound states like Minnesota and Wisconsin. (They're also banned in Florida. Um, okay.) Even in states where you are allowed to use metal studs, they can only be on the car for certain months of the year.

Many winter tires are what's known as "studdable," which means that they're winter tires with grippy tread and a rubber compound that doesn't freeze up and get hard when it's really cold. They don't come with studs installed from the factory, but a tire shop can add the studs for a fee. It's not like pushing a button on your way across a snow-covered mountain pass, but maybe the tire guy will let you push a button on the counter or something when you buy the studs. But comparisons have shown that studless winter tires perform as well as studded tires in almost all winter driving conditions without tearing up the road.

And then, there's the ultimate in real-world tire-conversion technology: tire chains. Cable chains and chain-chains offer better grip on slippery surfaces than studded tires, and you really, truly only use these rotten things when you need to. No one drives around town on merely wet streets with chains on. Again, there's still no push-button solution, but if you live in California, you might be able to find a chain monkey at the chain-up pull-off spot who will put the chains on your car for about the price of dinner and drinks for two. These guys hang out in warm trailers just waiting for pathetic urban weaklings on their weekend jaunt to the mountain to pull over when they see the "chains required" signs. These weekend warriors do pull over, and then quickly realize that putting their shiny new chains on involves crawling around in the slushy layer on top of the snow. Maybe, for a nice tip, the chain monkey will let you push a button, if that makes you feel cooler about it.

Author's Note: How Retractable-stud Snow Tires Work

I watched the video, and I was intrigued. I live in Oregon, and I've had the rotten experience of crawling around in freezing slush while someone rocked the car back and forth to adjust the chains and get the lock up and around so I could tighten those stupid things. And then they whap, whap, whapped against the wheel well, or the mud flap, or who knows what. And then we crept along at a mile and a half per hour and seriously questioned our commitment to snowboarding. No chain monkeys in Oregon.

So deployable studs sounded like a great idea. I eagerly contacted Nokian, excited to do yet another international phone interview, but all I got was a disappointing e-mail: "That tyre set is a concept tyre and we do not give any details about technology used out. No plans either to implement that technology to production tyres." No tires, no international interview. Nothing. Just the whap, whap, whap of chains echoing in my head.

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Sources

  • Consumer Reports. "Putting studded, studless tires to the test." Oct. 16, 2012. (March 3, 2014) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2012/10/putting-studded-studless-winter-tires-to-the-test/index.htm
  • Goodyear. "Tire and Vehicle Info: Studded Tires and Tire Chains." (March 3, 2014) http://www.goodyear.com/en-US/services/tire-care/studded-tires-and-tire-chains
  • LeDuff, Charlie. "Low pay at high altitude: The life of a 'chain monkey.'" The New York Times. Jan. 15, 2005. (March 5, 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/14/your-money/14iht-mchain.html
  • Magliozzi, Tom and Ray. "Do you really need studded snow tires in winter?" CarTalk.com. Dec. 1, 2008. (March 3, 2014) http://www.cartalk.com/content/do-you-really-need-studded-snow-tires-winter
  • Nokian Tyres. "Nokian Tyres: The world's first non-studded winter tire with studs." Feb. 13, 2014. (Feb. 25, 2014) http://www.nokiantires.com/release?id=196092&year=1970&group=1,%202
  • Tire Buyer. "Winter tires: To stud or not to stud?" (March 3, 2014) http://www.tirebuyer.com/education/studded-winter-tires
  • Washington State Department of Transportation. "Studded Tire Information." (March 3, 2014) http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/winter/studtire/