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Hyundai’s New Push-Button Snow Chains Are Right Out of a James Bond Movie

Hyundai's latest invention is deployable traction paddles that could pop out of a tire in snow.
Andrew P. Collins

Hyundai and Kia have cooked up a neat idea that sounds like it’s straight out of James Bond or Mario Kart—deployable traction paddles that would effectively give you push-button snow chains. Realistic? Eh. Cool? For sure.

The Korean megacorps seem to be on a bit of an invention kick. Last month, Hyundai unveiled its Uniwheel concept as a radical alternative axle arrangement. Now, we’re getting this “Shape Memory Alloy Integrated Snow Chain Technology” idea.

Hyundai

You could almost call this “deployable tire spikes,” but that’s not quite it. The concept has a series of alloy fingers tucked into the tire and connected to the wheel’s hub. At the ping of a signal, the fingers protrude beyond the tire’s circumference, becoming traction paddles. It’s basically like having instant-on tire chains.

The reason tire chains exist is that when you’re driving through something deep and soft (like snow, mud, or sand) regular tire treads can get caked up and rendered useless. And while true paddle tires do exist, they’re only for hardcore off-road use. They’d wear down to nothing in no time on a highway. So wrapping shaped chains or cables around a regular tire can essentially give you a temporary snow-digging paddle for extreme snow conditions.

Snow chains aren’t exactly hard to use, but they are annoying. When you need to install them, it’s usually in ghastly weather when you’d rather not be crawling around on the side of the road. That inconvenience is what Hyundai and Kia are theoretically looking to solve for with their snow chain-integrated tire technology idea here.

As the automakers present it:

This technology takes advantage of the shape memory alloy’s ability to return to its original shape when an electric current is applied. During normal driving, the shape memory alloy located inside the wheel is compressed into the shape of the letter ‘L’ and does not contact the road surface. When the driver activates the function, an electric current is applied, causing the shape memory alloy to revert to its original profile; the material forms a ‘J’ shape, pushing the module out of the tire to make contact with the surface, improving grip, stability and safety on snowy roads.

Hyundai

What a cool concept. Super snow traction at the push of a button? Being able to cruise by all those poor saps struggling with chains and cables while I’m sipping my latte on the way up to Mammoth Lakes? That’s the dream, my friends.

Hyundai’s release does state “Hyundai Motor and Kia to consider mass production of the system after further technological development, durability and performance tests, and regulation reviews,” but I’m gonna go ahead bet this idea will not advance much beyond the digital renders that have been made already.

Like I said, it’s cool, but the cost to do this well would be colossal, both for the company developing it and the consumer using it. For one thing, you’d need a bespoke line of specially shaped tires to accommodate the paddles. The “shape-memory alloy” would need to be insanely strong but also malleable—it’d take a real beating on the road. And you’d be adding a lot of weight to the wheels. I know Hyundai has moved upmarket a lot since the ’90s, but does it have a customer base looking to shell out major money for novelty convenience innovations?

Meanwhile, climate change is ruining winter—I was in my Massachusetts hometown this weekend (December 10) and ambient temp hit 57 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m not even sure if I’m gonna end up running snow tires on my Honda Civic this season, let alone needing chains.

Still, seems like Hyundai’s letting its engineers have a little fun with creative projects as this year comes to a close, and I’m all about it. Am I wrong? Are these a more practical possibility than I’m letting myself believe? Sound off in the comments.

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