The super cars are coming

With aerospace technologies set to revolutionise engine and body design, today's cars could become as obsolete as dinosaurs.

 
Published: Tuesday 30 November 1993

A dream on four wheels. DINOSAURS went extinct because the lumbering, gormandising behemoths were unable to adapt to a changing world. The contemporary car -- a fuming, fuel guzzling, latter-day dinosaur -- probably awaits the same fate. With oil getting scarcer and air fouler, it won't be long before today's cars are veered out of existence by the supercar of the future.

Propelling the evolution of tomorrow's supercar are state-of-art aerospace technologies. The three largest US car-makers -- General Motors, Ford Motors and Chrysler -- have already tied up with the US government to build a car with thrice the fuel efficiency of current models in the next 10 years, and based on technologies that were till now restricted to hi-tech weapon systems and space vehicles.

The futuristic machines would be twice as light, much faster, less polluting and with an appetite for fuel bound to make its predecessors guilty of gluttony. Supercar researchers also claim it would be more clean, durable, reliable, quiet and comfortable than contemporary models.

Space technology
Thanks to space age materials such as carbon fibre composites, which can be moulded into any complex shape, the car of the future will be aerodynamically streamlined, extremely light and fuel-efficient. The composites will not dent or rust and will be capable of being recycled. The new materials will even make painting -- the costliest and most polluting step in car-making -- redundant, as their lay-in-the-mould colour yields a more durable and attractive finish. Using composites will also reduce the number of car body parts: Chrysler has put together a complete body from as few as seven pieces, down from about 400.

Glazings that clear or darken in response to light will reduce the cooling load of air-conditioners, which is heavy, expensive and loaded with ozone-destroying CFCs. Light-coloured paints and upholstery, a photovoltaic powered vent fan, and clear but heat-reflecting glass will further reduce the load by 210C.

For a smoother ride, the supercar will run on suspension tyres used in jet aircrafts. Each wheel will be driven and braked by propulsion systems called hybrid electric drives, making gears and brakes redundant. At least one of the electric drives will produce electricity, eliminating the need for carburettors and batteries. Even in the simplest hybrid-electric design, the wheels are always driven (or braked) by electricity, which is made on board to power a low-power diesel or gas engine or a fuel cell that will burn methane or hydrogen.

A hybrid electric drive is perfect for the ultralight supercar, as it is smaller, lighter, cheaper, cleaner and more durable than a conventional engine or even a pure-electric car, say experts. And, as it automatically switches off while stationary -- at red lights or in a traffic jam -- it adds to fuel efficiency. Experts have worked out that it could also save upto 70 per cent of the kinetic energy lost in braking in today's cars.

Driving the supercar will become an out-of-the-world experience if it is customised with high-tech sensing control and navigation devices -- borrowed from combat aircrafts -- that have the potential to greatly extend the senses and reflexes of an average driver.

Add computers and the supercar will make a mechanic of the driver. In the event of a breakdown, the driver needn't get out of the car to open the bonnet to see what's wrong -- a computer-aided design of the engine will do the job.

The supercar philosophy runs counter to the conventional wisdom of improving car design in bits and pieces. The conventional piecemeal approach focusses far too much on the fine points of engine and transmission design, while neglecting the shape and weight of the body, which means very little fuel saving, say energy experts from the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado.

Rather than tinkering with old models, car-makers are now thinking of wholesale simplification. They have already produced a few supercar prototypes. General Motors' highly fuel efficient Ultralite cruised at a speed of 218 km an hour and gave 12.4 km to a litre of gasoline. The Ultralite was a six-piece, 191-kg engineering marvel built from carbon composites. And Ford's Probe V slipped through air faster than an F-16 jet.

But will these supercars ever hit the road? Pessimistic experts estimate the mass production cost of ultralight carbon fibre cars will be double that of the steel-bodied cars of today. Increasing fuel efficiency will also be extremely expensive, they say.

Optimists, however, suggest that with advances in carbon composite technology, the cars will become affordable by 2000. Yet others believe that if fewer than 30,000 carbon composite cars were produced each year, the lower tooling costs would permit them to beat the costs of steel cars. Besides, they argue, each 91-kg weight reduction improves fuel efficiency by about 5 per cent. Indeed, energy analysts have shown that if the car is lighter, one can run an average 1987 model -- without changing its size, ride, and acceleration -- with 35 per cent less fuel and more mileage.

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