Continental develops new tyre tech against aquaplaning

A sudden, heavy cloud cover preluding heavy rain is a frequent weather phenomenon which according to a recent analysis by the German Meteorological Society could be common in future Europe – torrential rain. Dramatic consequences include overwhelmed drains, saturated soil and disappearing roads. But the most hazardous weather phenomena facing drivers is the risk of aquaplaning.

In flash flooding the tyre tread is sometimes unable to displace water fast enough, so that a wedge of water builds underneath the car and lifts it up. The driver loses contact with the road and can no longer control the vehicle, even with assistance systems like Electronic Stability Control (ESC) or the Antilock Braking System (ABS). Some 39% of all road accidents are attributed to extreme weather conditions of this type.

However, Continental is at the forefront of development work to reduce the risk of aquaplaning.

Frank Jourdan, Head of the Chassis & Safety Division and member of the Continental Executive Board has said that: “The sudden onset of aquaplaning is frightening even with the best tyres; we are currently developing a high-performance technology that detects a potential risk of aquaplaning and warns the driver in good time.”

Continental uses images from wide-angle surround-view cameras to detect unusual levels of water displacement -these cameras are installed in the door mirrors, the radiator grille and at the rear of Continental’s research vehicles. Drivers can then be warned in good time to better adjust their speed before things get critical. Bernd Hartmann, Head of the Driver Assistance & Tire Interactions project group at Continental’s Chassis & Safety division has explained: “The images show a specific splash and spray pattern from the tyres when there is a lot of water on the road. An algorithm utilises this pattern to identify any risk of aquaplaning.”

The technology, which is currently at the predevelopment stage, could be ready to go into production for the next generation of vehicles. 

Future digitalisation and connectivity will also allow advance warnings for following traffic. Continental’s eHorizon system is a big data cloud solution that provides vehicles a preview of the road ahead and feeds information to the driver assistance systems. If there is a critical depth of water on the upcoming stretch, drivers can be made aware of it well in advance and reduce their speed accordingly, minimizing the risk of an accident.

Further information can be supplied by Continental’s electronic-Tire Information System sensors (eTis) – the tyre-mounted system can calculate appropriate speeds based on tread depth and road conditions, and analyse data from acceleration sensors to detect aquaplaning early on. The system immediately recognises a specific pattern if the tyre tread is no longer able to displace the water, and alerts the driver.

Major automaker Porsche has already equipped its new generation of the 911 model with a similar “wet mode” technology that uses acoustic sensors in the front wheel arches to measure spray. The sensors are smart enough to be able to distinguish water from sand or dirt, and the system notifies the driver to activate “wet mode” upon detecting any critical volume of water on the road.

Porsche’s various other vehicle systems then adapt their setup – switching to a softer throttle response, different transmission and more sensitive settings for the ABS and traction control. At the same time the front cooling flaps are opened all the way and the rear spoiler is deployed, modifying the vehicle’s aerodynamic characteristics to create maximum downforce and enhanced stability. This system can also activate car-to-car communication, allowing the acquired data to be passed on to other vehicles in a kind of inter-vehicle solidarity network of greater safety.

Apart from the European markets, the vision of crash-free driving in “Vision Zero,” transcends national boundaries. India is prone to violent rainstorms between June and September, resulting in a high risk of aquaplaning. Continental India now employs some 8,000 people and is currently building two more plants. But as the motorisation of India’s 1.3 billion population continues at a steady rate, something must be done to help drivers cope with the rainy season. The systems under development by Continental and other technology companies might offer an answer to a crash-free future.