Breaking Wind? Bubble Cars and Aero Trucks

June 20, 2008
Woody Allen Bubble Car

Woody Allen Bubble Car

After being put into suspended animation following a botched operation, Woody Allen wakes up centuries in the future - as a wanted man. Looking to escape, he steals an aerodynamic bubble car in one of the most memorable scenes from the film Sleeper.

For decades, the image shown above has resurfaced whenever I think about cars of the future. But could we be seeing bubble cars on the road in the not-too-distant future? For the answer, I visited Pat Schiavone, one of the top designers at Ford Motor Co.

His primary job is running the automaker's truck and crossover styling studios. And even there, Schiavone explained during a recent visit, aerodynamics are having a major impact. Consider that big brute of a work truck, the F-250. Check out the upcoming '09 model and you'll find a new wind dam under the front bumper. It's not much in terms of the overall design, but considering the fuel the big pickup can guzzle, that minor change has an outsized impact, boosting mileage by about 1 mpg, or nearly 8 percent.

The fact that Ford is putting so much emphasis on aerodynamics isn't surprising. Like all automakers, it's under immense pressure to boost fuel economy. Federal mileage standards are about to take a big jump, and getting there is expected to cost Detroit's Big Three tens of billions of dollars by the middle of the next decade. Much of that will go for the development of hybrid and other advanced powertrains. Yet, aerodynamic design can yield as much as 3 to 4 mpg at virtually no cost at all, declares Schiavone, other than for time spent in the wind tunnel.

"It's the low-hanging fruit," of which there's not much left, says Schiavone during a recent interview at Ford's Product Development Center in Dearborn, Michigan. "So you go after it."

During the days following the last big energy shock, Ford developed a reputation as an industry leader with the so-called aero-look. Derisively dubbed "jellybean styling," by its competitors, Ford put it to good work with products like the 1982 Thunderbird and, in particular, with the original, 1986 Taurus sedan, which quickly became the best-selling passenger car in the U.S. They might not have liked the look, but by decade's end, almost everyone was copying it.

Then came the light truck boom, and soft, aero silhouettes gave way to the sharp angles and blunt shapes of the pickup and SUV.

But with the truck quickly fading out as the American trendsetter, passenger cars and crossovers are quickly gaining ground. And the newest shapes are becoming softer, sleeker, and slippery.

Aerodynamics play an especially important role in highway driving, where most of the energy a car produces is used to push air out of its way. Yet, even for around-town driving, aerodynamics can have a sizable impact, as General Motors has discovered during the ongoing development of its plug-in hybrid (GM prefers the term "extended-range EV"), the Chevrolet Volt.

The original prototype, first unveiled at the January 2007 Detroit Auto Show, featured sharp front fender creases and a softly rounded rear. "It did better in the wind tunnel," noted the automaker's product czar, Bob Lutz. So designers rounded the front, to keep air attached to the body, then put the creases in the rear, where the airflow, in fact, needed to quickly detach. The effect was dramatic, boosting battery-only range from around mid-to-high 30 miles to nearly 45 miles. That, the automaker believes, will be enough to make it work on battery power alone for typical U.S. commutes.

"Everything is going to be more aerodynamic than it is," forecasts Ford's Schiavone. "I've never spent so much time in the wind tunnel, because it's now a requirement with everything we do."

In many cases, as Ford found out with the F-250 and GM discovered with the Volt, it can take the most subtle tweaks to yield big savings. European makers, like BMW and Mercedes-Benz, put tremendous work into the styling of their sideview mirrors, for example. And the payoff is extensive - not just in terms of aero-derived fuel economy improvements, but also with sharp reductions in wind noise and improved performance.

There's also the issue of aesthetics - and the promise of gaining a competitive edge.

Ford's original Taurus was a breakthrough vehicle in a variety of ways. It leapfrogged the competition with improvements in quality, refinement, and features, but its ovoid shape made it instantly recognizable amid the then-standard crop of wedge- and box-shaped sedans.

Schiavone believes a truly stand-out aero design could yield a similar payoff today. A case in point is the Toyota Prius, the world's best-selling hybrid-electric vehicle. Industry analysts contend that this one-off model, with its egg-like styling, has surpassed all competitors, as much as anything, because it is identifiable at a glance.

Distinctive, yes, but not necessarily attractive. "The challenge from a design point of view is that I have to make it sexy," says Schiavone. "If the customer doesn't like it, it doesn't do any good," no matter how aerodynamic.

But what customers may be willing to see as sexy is changing, the Ford design executive contends. In fact, Schiavone adds, "I believe people are ready for a 21st-century look," which may have more in common with the automobiles found in science fiction than anything on the road today.

Does that mean he's working up just such a design at Ford. "You know I can't talk about future product," he protests, with a broad grin, "but where we are today, anything's possible."

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