The Mazda RX-9 is an advanced concept that came out on top in this year’s Michelin Design Challenge. It’s a hybrid featuring a 2.5L V6 and wafer-thin electric motor, but features a couple of technologies not seen before in the race for higher fuel mileage.

James Owen Design is the one-man firm responsible for penning the vehicle’s shape. The slick skin features electrostatic collectors that can collect electrical charges that build up on the exterior panels while driving through dry air. The electricity is store in capacitors that can then feed the hybrid drivetrain along with the onboard regenerative braking.

What’s more trick are the vehicle’s tires, which feature Electroactive Polymers (E.A.P.) that with varying levels of voltage from the vehicle’s electrical system can actually change the shape and depth of their tread pattern. The rubber donuts can go from flat and smooth to knobby and grippy, or even ride high on their centers for ultra-low rolling resistance.

Follow the jump for further exposition provided by James Owen himself and for additional images. High res images can be found at the above links.

[Source: James Owen Design]


James Owen Design has recently completed the Mazda RX-9 / Michelin
E.A.P. transportation concept which was a Winner of the Michelin Challenge
Design at the 2006 North American International Auto Show.

Michelin E.A.P. is a tire system designed to take advantage of current
and forthcoming advances in hybrid drive train technology. E.A.P.
stands for Electroactive Polymer, which are also known as artificial muscles
for their functional similarity to natural muscles. E.A.P.s are plastic
materials that change shape and size when a given voltage or current is
applied. These new and advanced polymers have been crossbred with
hybrid engine technology and vehicle mounted, electrostatic collectors to
create a new kind of adaptive tire concept.

Michelin E.A.P.s work in conjunction with the proposed Mazda RX-9’s
hybrid drive train, electrostatic collectors, and onboard capacitor. The
E.A.P. wheel and tire assembly draws voltage from the hybrid engines’
batteries and capacitor. This voltage activates the articulated treading
that responds to changing road conditions. The batteries build up a
charge through regenerative braking and engine charging while the
capacitor gathers electrical energy through electrostatic nodes located at
strategic points on the vehicles skin. As the vehicle travels through the
dry California air, an electrical charge is built-up on the exposed
metal areas of the RX9. This continual build up is channeled to the
batteries and on-board capacitor for distribution to the tires and other
systems.

Michelin E.A.P.s are designed to “morph” from one mode to another when
voltage is applied to the electroactive polymer that each tire is made
up of. This allows the tires’ tread pattern to change shape and depth.
In this way, the tire can be optimized for various road conditions. The
tread can change from a smooth, even shape to take advantage of the dry
road conditions of L.A. County to fully protruded tread sections that
are optimized to bite through the snow and slush of Mt. Shasta. “Low
Rolling Resistance” is one of the most useful and relevant modes for the
California market. This mode allows the RX-9 to cruise on it’s narrow
center section of tread. Since commuting is a major part of Californians
lifestyle it is absolutely critical that a vehicle and it’s tires are
optimized to return the highest gas mileage and lowest emissions
possible.

The Mazda RX-9 puts its power to the ground via Michelin E.A.P. tire
technology. Combined with a four-wheel drive system, regenerative
braking, cylinder deactivation at cruising speeds, and lightweight bodywork
the RX-9 can feasibly deliver 30 to 40 m.p.g., achieve low six second 0 -
60 M.P.H. times, and attain a top speed north of 150 m.p.h. The front,
transversely mounted hybrid drive train consists of a multi-valve 2.5
liter V6 coupled to a wafer-thin electric motor/generator sandwiched
between the engine and six-speed transmission. The RX-9 is configured to
seat four passengers comfortably. It incorporates two smaller rear doors
(that deploy in a clamshell fashion) easing ingress and egress for rear
passengers.  The doors and inner doorframe are part of a larger
internal structure that combines an aluminum space frame with composite
exterior surfaces and electrostatic collection nodes. These nodes transfer
electrical energy to an on-board capacitor. This energy is gathere
 d as the vehicle travels through the dry California atmosphere and is
utilized to power the Michelin E.A.P. tire system.