TURIN - Leonardo Fioravanti designed some of the most famous Ferraris - from the Daytona to the Testarossa - but his biggest contribution to automobile development may turn out to be the invention of the 'smart tire.'
'I conceived the idea of a smart tire in 1984, but in order to obtain a patent, you need not only the idea, but also the method to make it work,' said Fioravanti, 62.
He finally filed for a patent four years later and he demonstrated smart tires for the first time in 1994.
Fioravanti has run his own independent design house since 1991, after 24 years at Pininfarina and another three at Ferrari and Fiat Auto. He installed smart tires on the Sensiva, his first concept car as a freelance designer, at the April 1994 Turin auto show.
'The main aim of the Sensiva,' he said at the time, 'is to offer non-stop protection in any kind of weather and road conditions, whatever the style of driving: fast, effective, performance driving, Formula One style; or relaxed, unhurried, touring. This is possible with a car that senses the ground and automatically adapts itself to suit the conditions.'
The Sensiva's sensors were located beneath the treads. They sensed road conditions and transmitted the information to a computer that instantly adapted acceleration and braking.
The Sensiva's smart tires were part of a complete subsystem that included the suspension, brake and engine.
Six years ago not only the smart tire, but also the idea of a comprehensive corner module, was a dream. Fioravanti had been thinking about such things for a long before that.
In November 1988, Fioravanti filed a patent for a 'method for controlling the movement of a motor vehicle provided with tires that cooperate with the ground to define respective footprints.'
Italy recognized the patent in September 1990 and approval was granted in France, Germany, the UK, Spain and the USA in 1993. Japan recognized his patent last year.
After the appearance of the Sensiva, 21 other patents were filed around the world citing Fioravanti's smart tire patent.
Another smart tire patent had been filed in November 1989 and approved in February 1994 by German engineer Bert Breuer. This patent was transferred to Continental AG in September 1994.
In March 1999, Continental was the first tire maker to announce plans to produce smart tires, starting in 2003. Continental plans to use sensors inserted in the tire side, while Fioravanti's patent is for sensors to be directly inserted within the tire tread.
Fioravanti said he hopes soon to reach an agreement with a major supplier or a tire maker 'to finally see my smart tire idea in production.'
'I am convinced that to control vehicle dynamics there is nothing better than a smart tire with sensors in its tread,' he said. 'This solution offers real-time and more precise information than any sensor mounted within the car body, such as antilock brakes or electric stability program.'
Fioravanti is understood to be to talking to Delphi, Magneti Marelli and Visteon - all interested in supplying sophisticated, electronically controlled corner modules. He is also talking to Continental, Goodyear and Pirelli.