C&B Notes

Rethinking Car Design

This new Aston Martin is not in our price range, but the car’s new engineering piqued our curiosity.  Historically, low-drag car designs have produced lift at high speeds.  This radical new design reverses that outcome, which has big implications for how fast cars (think self-driving ones) will be able to safely travel in the future.

One thing unites all cars built for the road, from the dumpiest Chevy sedans to the most erotic exotics.  In the eyes of a wind tunnel, they are all pigs.  “What about the almighty sleekness of a Lamborghini or a Ferrari?” you might ask.  To the wind tunnel they look like Conestoga wagons, or Spanish galleons, or equestrian statuary.  We are talking air resistance here, or drag, caused both by automobiles’ size and irregular shape.  Rub your eyes and look again.  Bumpers, mirrors, wheels and tires, windshields the size of dining room tables.  If the teardrop is nature’s most aero-efficient form, the automobile flies through the air like a kidney stone.

And lift.  Ugh.  Again, as a wind tunnel sees things, a modern car looks like a wing: flat on the bottom and round on top.  The faster you go, the more the wing wants to take flight.  Meanwhile, in the few inches of ground clearance underneath the car, hurricane winds pile up to form a ragged zone of high pressure, lifting the car until the tires barely have any purchase.  But what if road cars were shaped differently?  What if, rather than becoming draggy and unstable with speed, family sedans became more stable, the invisible hand of the air pressing them to the tarmac rather than prying them loose?  Formula One cars do this, and that ability in street-legal vehicles is the missing link between our current predicament and an alternate reality of high-speed mass transportation: silver rivers of cars pouring along expressways at unrestricted speeds.  But even the best artificially intelligent autopilot can’t take us there until we fix the hardware, until auto makers teach road cars to stay on the road at 200-plus miles per hour.

Adrian Newey, the chief technical officer for Red Bull Racing, gets paid a lot of money to see things as a wind tunnel sees them.  He is the most accomplished race engineer in history, having won 10 F1 constructor’s championships with multiple teams over three decades.  But Newey never worked on a road car before the one you see here, the AM-RB 001, a collaboration between Red Bull Racing and the British luxury-car maker Aston Martin.  At the July unveiling in Gaydon, England, Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer pulled the silk off a static model of the car, this lithe and improbable sculpture, suggesting a zero-altitude spaceship, or an animate flow of molten green lipstick.  Behold a car that will attempt the previously unthinkable: to deliver racecar-rivaling performance in a drive-to-the-store passenger car with airbags and audio system.  And with a fire-breathing V-12 too. Take that, Green Party.  Only 175 copies of the 001 will be made, 150 street-legal and 25 track-only.  Beginning in the first quarter of 2019, they will head out the door for the price of about $3 million each.

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The 001’s magic resides in the Newey-designed underbody.  By virtue of its remarkable shape, the car generates not lift but what is called downforce — where the force of the air pins the car to the earth — and in unprecedented amounts.  The unofficial figure of 4,000 pounds total downforce (track-only package) was whispered to me more in astonishment than confidence.  Theoretically the 2,200-pound 001 could drive upside down across the roof of a tunnel, held up only by the force of the aero.  Now, that’s stable.  If the ideas embodied in here hold sway, future cars could all look very different, reborn in a design language that fundamentally alters the automobile’s historic relationship with the air.  Actually stands it on its head.

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