Driving change with data
Traffic sometimes pales in comparison with the hassle and stress caused by a flat tire. There was one point in my car's life when the tires seemed to get punctured by a nail every few weeks. It made me wish that my tires could be smarter. After all, my car already knew what temperature I liked when it was cold out, it had learned my favorite radio stations, and it even had programmed my mirror and seat settings. So why hadn’t the tires caught up?
As if to answer the question, Michelin recently signaled its long-term commitment to developing an airless tire it calls the Vision, whose design is driven by two innovations. Inside the tire, a 3-D printed, web-like inner tire structure supports the vehicle without air. Outside, the Vision is equipped with a sensor to communicate dangerous tread wear to the car’s driver, improving safety and increasing ease of maintenance, allowing drivers to change or adjust the tread at 3D printing stations. While the tire is at least ten years from being marketed, its makers promise the tire will relieve drivers from worrying about tire pressure, flat tires, or blowouts, and even the environment, since it uses sustainable, biodegradable materials.
Reinventing the wheel
Digitization has transformed many tools and technologies, but the automobile tire seems especially resistant to innovation—and quintessentially analogue. Like record players and other wheel-like technologies of the 20th century, tires might once have resembled the wheels of progress, but in a digital age their function seems increasingly pedestrian. Where once “revolutionary” technologies have been replaced by digital ones—records and CDs by mp3s, Blu-ray by digital video files—it seems odd to reinvent the wheel as…another wheel.
But while it’s a wheel, it’s a digital wheel, and so data collection is at the figurative hub of the tire’s design. Given this, and the general prevalence of innovation around the collection and use of data these days, it’s natural to wonder if the new tire will inspire even more data-driven innovation in cars of the future.
For instance, once real-time tire tread data can be collected and transmitted, can real-time road data be far behind? It’s only a mild stretch to imagine tires transmitting this data to drivers, or better yet sending it directly to other yet-to-be developed components (e.g. suspension systems) that can automatically use the data to work more optimally, in real time.
Once tires are capable of supplying data, they might evolve to make use of it too. While 3D printing will allow drivers to change the tread of their Vision tires at roadside stations, some future technology might allow a tire to adjust its physical attributes automatically, in real time, in response to driving conditions, becoming more or less flexible, or changing the shape of its treads, as the road becomes smoother or rougher.
Turning data to your advantage
This kind of speculation has a corollary in the supply chain. It’s one thing to think about an invoice, a purchase order, or a tire as a source of data, but another to think about how it might use data.
Already, advanced e-invoicing platforms let Buyers leverage e-invoicing data to make smarter purchasing decisions. In theory, e-invoices and purchase orders could be developed that not only supply data to Buyers and Suppliers, but automatically respond to real-time data feeds as well. For instance, an e-invoicing platform equipped to automatically sense changing physical conditions in the supply chain, or economic or political conditions affecting the marketplace, could alter the terms of a purchase order or invoice algorithmically if there were advantages to be gained.
With the help of new real-time data feeds, digital purchase orders and invoices could become more flexible. In a fast-changing world where friction often comes in the form of surprise events, would there be advantages to be found in structuring purchasing agreements so they could adapt to the contingencies? And if so, how would that change the way we do business?
Agreements like purchase orders and invoices may be set in stone, but when they’re encoded in digits they can also make use of algorithms and data inputs that give them more flexibility. Today, Suppliers can frictionlessly create and issue e-invoices to Buyers while complying with changing tariffs that are calculated automatically, making compliance a matter handled by machines. Tomorrow, could mutual advantages be found in technology that allows both Buyers and Suppliers to make the terms of transactions more flexible and contingent?