The importance of the spare wheel
Once upon a time, the spare wheel was an essential element inside any vehicle. It offered motorists safety and peace of mind, allowing them to deal with possible tyre puncture problems. However, recent years have seen a significant change in the automotive world.
With modern technologies and more durable tyres, many car manufacturers have abandoned the traditional spare wheel in favour of lighter and more compact alternatives. This choice was driven by the desire to reduce vehicle weight, improve the boot space and fuel efficiency( also to save some money, we’ll say!), considering that 85% of all drivers never use a spare tyre, along with the tools to change it.
So, spare wheel, yes or no? Depends!
Each of us motorists can decide what suits him best according to where he lives (in the city, in the country or in a remote area), what kind of roads he drives on (paved, gravel or dirt roads) and how much time would have to lose if he will adopt one of the proposed alternatives.
Types of Spare Wheel
Full-size Spare Wheel
Until the end of the last century, cars were always equipped with a fifth wheel positioned in the underfloor of the luggage compartment, under a seat or in the bonnet, or even on off-road vehicles hanging from the tailgate. In the early days, the spare wheel was a normal-sized wheel, which allowed a punctured tyre to be changed without much trouble and the journey to continue without a hitch. For those with spare tyres, it is necessary to check them occasionally to ensure they can fulfil their task when needed.
The space-saver wheel is a temporary wheel, smaller and thinner than a normal wheel, introduced to increase the space available in the boot. It is a small tyre mounted on a sheet metal rim that allows the car to continue travelling for no more than 50 km at a maximum speed of 80 km/h (well indicated on the wheel itself) and with the car unbalanced. It is important to remember that the space-saver wheel has less strength and grip(therefore, less stopping and cornering ability) than a normal wheel and, in theory, should not be mounted in place of a tyre that provides the car’s traction. When using the space-saver wheel, it must drive slowly and carefully.
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Spare Wheel Alternatives
Emergency Tyre Repair Kit
One of the main replacements for the spare wheel is the emergency tyre repair kit. This kit usually includes a sealant and an air compressor to repair a puncture temporarily. It can only be used if the cut or puncture is on the tread and it does not exceed a certain size. Although it is a convenient solution for minor tyre damage, it is useless for more serious damage or when the tyre is completely flat. If the repair kit is not used properly, one finds oneself without any other solution to safely restart and will be forced to call the tow truck. In fact, many people complain about the difficulty of using the compressor and tyre sealant, which is often difficult to get to work in sync. It must also be considered that the kit is disposable: after a repair is made, it will not be serviceable again and buying another canister tyre sealant that can be used in an emergency will be necessary. You should also check the expiry date of the tyre sealant and replace it if it has expired or is close to expiry. It can be a good alternative for a spare tyre if you live in the city and are not too far from a tyre dealer or repair workshop. Otherwise, better to opt for something else.
One significant development that has contributed to the decline of spare wheels is the introduction of run-flat tyres. These tyres are designed with reinforced sidewalls that allow the tyre to support the vehicle’s weight even when it has lost air pressure due to a puncture. This technology enables drivers to continue their journey for a limited distance, typically around 50 miles, even with a flat tyre. Run-flat tyres have gained popularity among car manufacturers as they eliminate the need for a spare wheel, thereby reducing weight and improving fuel efficiency. Still, a run-flat tyre replacement can be very high. A question arises! Can run-flat tyres also be mounted on cars with standard tyres using the same wheel rims? The answer is no; cars with standard tyres have suspension that is calibrated for this type of tyre, whereas run-flat tyres are structurally different and more rigid. But that’s not the only reason! Run-flat tyres need a certain type of rim built especially for them, marked by the acronym EH or EH+, which stands for Extend Hump or Extend Hump+. These acronyms indicate the presence of special appendages inside the rim that serve to retain the bead of the tyre if it deflates, thus preventing bead breakage, i.e. the tyre coming off the rim. In addition, run-flat tyres are monitored by the tyre pressure monitoring sensor system installed on the car (TPMS), system calibrated especially for them.
Warning: In the UK, from 1 January 2015, if your car has a non-functioning or faulty TPMS sensor, it will not pass the MOT.
So switching from standard tyres to run-flat tyres involves more than just changing tyres.
The disadvantages of run-flat tyres:
- they are up to 50% more expensive than a standard tyre;
- they reduce driving comfort (noisy, and the car absorbs all vibrations);
- not all tyre dealers have them;
- given their poor grip, they are not suitable for wet or slippery roads;
- difficult or impossible to recover in the event of a puncture.
Self-sealing tyres are designed with an inner lining that contains a special sealant. When a puncture occurs, the sealant is automatically released and fills the hole, sealing it and preventing air from escaping. This allows drivers to continue their journey without needing immediate tyre replacement or repairs.
With self-sealing tyres, drivers can experience minimal downtime during a puncture. The sealant quickly takes effect, sealing the hole and enabling the driver to continue driving to a safe location or a nearby service centre for a more permanent repair. Self-sealing tyres are effective for repairing small punctures caused by nails or screws. However, more significant tyre damage, such as sidewall cuts or blowouts, may require professional assistance or complete tyre replacement. Self-sealing tyres can be slightly more expensive than conventional tyres due to the addition of technology and sealant. However, their convenience and peace of mind may outweigh the initial cost for many motorists. Over time, this technology will be developed more and more, and I believe it will also become an economically viable alternative to the spare tyre.
Airless tyres – the tyres of tomorrow?
And now a few words about another type of tyre being developed but not yet on the market for passenger cars – the airless tyre, also known as non-pneumatic tyre or NPT.
Companies such as Michelin, Goodyear, Hankook, Toyo, etc., are trying to develop airless tyres to eliminate the possibility of flat tyres, to increase driving safety by eliminating the possibility of tyre blowouts, and because they cannot lose pressure, they will last longer, need much less maintenance and be more environmentally sustainable.
But “all that glitters is not gold”!
The airless tyre concept isn’t new. Airless tyres have long been utilised in various applications, such as ride-on lawnmowers, motorised golf carts, and bicycles. They also find common usage in heavy construction equipment, which operates in high-risk environments like building demolition sites, where the probability of punctures is elevated. This type of non-pneumatic tyre will probably be available for our cars by 2030, if not sooner.
To date, manufacturers are trying to find solutions to reduce the vibrations and noise these tyres develop. They do not offer the same suspension, so they will not absorb the impact of a pothole or a bump, which affects cars and passengers. These tyres are much heavier than standard ones and increase fuel consumption. Another problem they struggle with is overheating at higher speeds, which leads to tyre damage, failure and premature tyre wear. We have to wait and see if this type of tyre will be the tomorrow tyre of our cars.
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In addition to the alternatives mentioned above, it’s worth considering the benefits of roadside support and assistance programs offered by automobile clubs and insurance providers. These programs provide comprehensive coverage and support for tyre emergencies, including flat tyres, blowouts, and other roadside incidents. Services may include on-the-spot tyre repairs, towing, or replacement options, ensuring drivers have the necessary help when faced with unexpected situations.
Trying to figure out which spare tyres and their alternatives are best, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The choice ultimately depends on individual preferences, driving habits and vehicle use. For out-of-town trips, I prefer the spare wheel. Am I exaggerating? Maybe! But I feel much safer that way than just having a tyre repair kit or waiting for roadside assistance. I haven’t tested either run-flat or self-sealing tyres yet, but I wouldn’t feel safe using them for long journeys, especially in remote areas! Traditional spare wheels remain a reliable and simple solution, especially for motorists who favour self-sufficiency and universal compatibility. However, for those seeking convenience, increased fuel efficiency and advanced safety features, run-flat tyres, self-sealing tyres, or a combination of alternatives may be more suitable.