March 5, 2012 11:17 pm
On holiday in the Caribbean a few years ago, Frank Stephenson, McLaren Automotive’s chief designer, heard about the sailfish – described by the manager of the resort where he was staying as the fastest creature in the sea.
In Miami, on his way back home, Mr Stephenson bought a sailfish, took it to a taxidermist and then returned with it to the sports car maker’s headquarters in Surrey, where McLaren’s technicians painted it chrome and rocket red. Mr Stephenson’s team then studied this McLarenised sailfish to see what made it so fast.
At the rear of the fish’s torso, he explains, there are aerodynamic, teardrop-shaped bumps that smooth out the flow of water around the tail. Taking inspiration from the fish, McLaren applied similar “diblets” around the mirror arms of its supercar, the MP4-12C, to smooth airflow and reduce wind noise.
Mr Stephenson’s flight of fancy will sound familiar to anyone who works in the industry. Designers are the resident eccentrics at car companies, the quirkily dressed, whimsical counterpoints to the stolid engineers rooted more firmly in the world of engineering tolerances, budget constraints, and safety and emissions regulations that must be built into cars.
However, McLaren’s ability to take inspiration from nature – which Mr Stephenson calls “biomimicry” – and apply it quickly also attests to the technological changes in modelling tools and materials that are giving car designers greater freedom than ever.
“It’s a great time to be a designer,” says Mr Stephenson, a veteran of the industry who designed the BMW X5, the new Mini and the Fiat 500. “The limit is your creativity, or how far you want to push the envelope.”
One of the biggest additions to the car designer’s toolbox in recent years has been computer-aided design.
While CAD is well established in the carmaking industry, design teams are learning to use it more effectively to take advantage of advancing technology and incorporate it quickly into their cars. This, in turn, is helping an industry accustomed to decade-long product cycles to adjust its vehicles to the whims of fashion at a speed more commonly associated with makers of smartphones and tablet computers.
Consumers expect a quick turnover of electronic products and no one wants to get stuck with yesterday’s design, says Bill Visnic, analyst and senior editor with Edmunds.com, the US car-buying website.
An example of this, he says, is light-emitting diode (LED) lamps, which have enabled designers to make headlights smaller and to narrow the front end of cars. First seen on vehicles from premium carmakers such as Audi, LED lights have filtered down into the mass market at speed.
Designers are now deploying CAD to take advantage of new materials and manufacturing methods that allow them to give their cars features that until now would have been impossible.
Audi’s A3, for example, which premieres in Geneva this week, has unusually sharp crease lines – bold enough to cast a sharp shadow on the side of the car.
Karim Habib, head of exterior design at BMW, says: “We are learning to use a very intelligent mixture of materials.” In the past, carmakers could not put steel and aluminium together – they would corrode – but the Munich carmaker’s 7 Series now has an aluminium bonnet and doors and a steel side frame, he says.
Mr Habib’s team is adjusting its methods to make use of carbon fibre-reinforced plastic, which BMW will be using in its forthcoming BMW i hybrid and electric cars. Because the mix of materials expand and contract at different temperatures, leaving a gap, BMW is designing the exterior of the cars so that the surfaces overlap.
As well as using cutting-edge materials such as carbon fibre, the industry’s engineers are learning to do new things with old ones.
The use of high-strength steel, explains Mr Visnic, means that A-pillars (the vertical pillars in front of the front doors), which need to be rigid for rollover protection, can also be sleeker and offer improved sightlines through the windscreen and side windows.
Improvements in the design of impact and crash absorption points mean that carmakers can use more glass and less steel in cars’ roofs.
Veteran designer Mr Stephenson recalls pushing the limits when he helped to reinvent the Mini for BMW. The car featured glass that wrapped around it (“like modern architecture”, he says) and tail-lights inserted into holes punched in the rear bumper – both features then considered to be cutting-edge.
He talks about more fanciful concepts under development at McLaren: capturing the sun’s energy to introduce “photoluminescent” features on the interiors of the company’s cars.
Cars in the future, he says, might have surfaces that resemble skin and are capable of repairing themselves.
“It’s all out there,” he says. “It’s up to us to figure it out.”
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