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The Future of Car Design?

By raccars Published

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Auto manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to improve fuel economy for their vehicles, but the latest development in this field could result in some significant changes to car design as we know it. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's aerodynamics department is working on an all new material inspired by the humble golf ball.

With the aim of reducing drag and increasing efficiency, MIT scientists have created a surface that switches between dimpled and smooth finishes. Applied to certain car body panels, this material should improve fuel economy by bringing down drag.

The concept of a textured surface for better aerodynamic performance has been in evidence for a long time and used on golf balls since the 1800s. The story goes that golf balls were originally smooth but became dented through use. Tournaments started with smooth, new balls but when a player ran out and was forced to use an old ball full of dents, he found he could drive it much further. While this may be apocryphal, science has proved the truth of the theory and the same principle has been used on the footballs for this summer's World Cup, which feature a similar dimpled surface.

The technology behind the system is based around the idea that the dimples hold the airflow closer to the surface of the object for a longer time. This reduces turbulence behind the object, which is the main cause of drag on a ball. Given that this is common knowledge, it may seem strange that the usually very forward thinking auto industry hasn't cottoned on to the idea of textured panels before. However it's not that simple. While the dimples improve aerodynamics when driving at lower speeds, such as in urban areas, they have the opposite effect on motorways and faster roads when travelling at higher speeds.

Where MIT has made a breakthrough has been to create a smart surface, that morphs between smooth and textured at the press of a button. This allows drivers to select the most efficient aerodynamic profile according to their driving behaviour at the time. The result should be real savings on fuel.

The technology being developed involves a stiff exterior skin on top of a soft interior. The skin responds to changes in pressure, so that when pressure is lowered, the outer surface shrinks back upon it, forming dimples. The same concept applies to plums when they turn into prunes. It is this changeable nature of the panel surface that is the real breakthrough here and could allow the technology to be used on car bodywork.

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