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Speed May Be What Society Needs

Posted 05/01/2008 by Philip Karlberg

Racecars show promise to be the magic bullet for a hurting industry.
by Philip Karlberg
Cartoon by Philip Karlberg (click to enlarge)

phil_cartoon1_small.jpg     When most people think about cars, words such as performance and speed seem to rarely be associated with efficiency and safety, but ironically, the high performance car world may be the best place to look for the automotive security and economy solutions that we need. 
    As the automotive industry is at a crucial point in its journey, with efficiency and safety becoming more and more important every year, it seems unlikely that the answers needed should come from the motorsport world.  Typically, racing is seen as dangerous, and it is true that most racecars suck down fuel faster than a Mack truck (some dragsters go through 12 gallons in a 1/4-mile), but in reality the performance car industry and the conservative car industry are much more similar than many would suppose.  If we are going to solve the energy problem brought on by sky-high gas prices, and improve safety on increasingly congested roads, we will have to learn some lessons from the world of speed.

Lesson #1 – Power and efficiency are not so different
    With gas prices ballooning and wallets shrinking, efficiency is the big buzzword in the automotive industry.  Typically, high performance cars are not very high on the efficiency list but this is simply because they are pursuing a different kind of efficiency.  Efficiency is defined as getting as much power possible out of as little fuel as possible, which is somewhat the goal of both the Ferrari and the Prius.  In the case of performance cars, the designer tries to get as much power as possible out of the amount of fuel available and in efficiency oriented cars, the goal is to use as little fuel as necessary to get an acceptable level of power.  Simply put, the goal of both is to improve efficiency; the only difference is whether to minimize fuel or maximize power.
Admittedly, high performance technologies do not necessarily improve efficiency.  Some simply allow more fuel to be converted to energy, but there are technologies that directly improve efficiency, or at least could be used for efficiency.  An example of this is the turbocharger, an exhaust driven compressor that compresses more air and fuel into the cylinders to maximize power.  In some cars turbos make tire shredding power, but applied differently this principle could boost efficiency.  For the average car, 200 horsepower is considered an acceptable amount of power that, in most cases, requires about a 2.5 liter engine.  Smaller engines tend to be more efficient because there is less reciprocating mass and friction to waste energy.  By putting a turbo on the 2.5 liter mentioned previously, it could raise the power output to around 250 horsepower, or, with efficiency in mind would allow a smaller 2.0 liter engine to make the same power output as its larger predecessor.  The smaller engine would be sufficient for most situations on its own, cheaper and more efficient, but when that extra power is needed, a couple of timing adjustments and closing of the turbo’s waste gate would kick up the car’s power to the average level.  Kind of like investing in a new technology to get a job done faster rather than to get the job done better.
    Other technologies that simply reduce the amount of wasted energy by engines include variable intake manifolds, lightweight forged pistons and connecting rods as well as free-er flowing exhaust systems.  All of these are technologies developed for race cars, but would cut down on wasted energy and could make the average car much more efficient.

Lesson #2 – Our cars are fat
Our cars need to go on a diet, it is simply true.  My 1992 Honda Accord weighs 2733 pounds; a brand new Honda Accord with a comparable four-cylinder engine weighs in at 3349 pounds, more than 600 pounds heavier, a 25% increase.  In human terms that is like a 160 pound person putting on another 40 pounds.  So why have cars gained so much weight?  It is true that governmental requirements mandated more safety systems, but the real reason is that we want bigger cars.  Every year car models slowly grow bigger and bigger to give us more room that we don’t need.  I am 6’2” and fit comfortably in my car. I can fit four other people comfortably with me and have more trunk room than I ever need, so why does the new Accord need to be so much larger?
    There are many benefits to cutting weight from our cars: smaller cars are easier to park, lighter cars tend to handle better and are more enjoyable to drive.  The big factor is that smaller cars are more efficient.  The simple math is that it takes less fuel to get a 3000 pound car to 60 M.P.H. than it does a 3500 pound car.  Lighter cars cost less to buy because of lower material costs, are cheaper to run because of efficiency and tend to be more enjoyable to drive (just ask anyone who has driven a mini cooper).
    Racecars typically are featherweights compared to most cars.  The average F1 car weighs in the neighborhood of 1300 pounds, less than half that of my Accord.  Advanced materials make this possible and are seen often in the performance car industry.  Aluminum engine blocks cut weight, magnesium components shave mass away from heavily used parts and the ultimate weight saver, carbon fiber.  Carbon fiber now is expensive and costly to assemble, but as it begins to be used more heavily, the cost will make it realistic for cheaper cars.  Carbon Fiber is much lighter than steel and much stronger for it’s weight, improving efficiency, performance and safety.  In the future carbon fiber frames will be not just a luxury for exotics but the standard for quality cars, allowing them to be lighter and safer than ever.
Many would argue that smaller cars are not as safe, and they would be right, in that smaller cars could be easily steam-rolled by a full size SUV.  But the idea of getting a bigger car to be safer in crashes is like carrying a gun everywhere you go; it may keep you safer, but it endangers everyone else.  On your own it will protect you but if everyone does it, they will all be putting each other in more danger than before.  Smaller cars need less structural reinforcement to keep the car solid in a single car crash, as it has less of its own weight to counteract in a crash.  If we cut weight from all cars, there will not be a significant loss of safety because of the loss of weight.

Lesson #3 – Three more seconds are worth a lifetime
    There is another lesson we need to learn from racecars with regard to safety.  Car racing is more dangerous than the average commute, but this is only because there is a much higher chance of crashing, not because the cars are less safe.  In fact, racecars are far safer than road cars in the event of a crash.  It is not uncommon for drivers to get themselves out of racecars just seconds after surviving 100+ mph crashes on the track.  Why are these cars so safe?  The simple reason is the sacrifice some of comfort and flexibility for the added safety.  Racecars have full roll cages that keep the passenger compartment rock solid in even the most violent crashes, they have tight fitting seats with taught seatbelts that are more like harnesses that keep passengers stuck to their seats during crashes and have helmets cradles that minimize head injuries.
    Although these safety systems are unrealistic to be applied to modern cars to the full extent they are seen in racecars, they could save countless lives if applied to a lesser degree.  The addition of a second cross strap would help hold passengers in place during a crash, especially in offset crashes.  If modern cars’ seating position was more like a racecar, the driver sitting further back in his seat and steering wheel closer to his chest and seatbelts held tighter on the passengers more like the harnesses in race cars, many lives could be saved, especially in high speed crashes.  In front of TJ on March 20th, was a medium sized sedan that has its entire right side crushed in from a reckless driver, placed there to intimidate young drivers from driving dangerously.  With a full roll cage, that car would be in much better shape than it is now and possibly the three kids who died in that crash would still be with us.  The roll cages and crash structures in racecars would not be unrealistic to implement in modern cars, especially smaller ones, and would give someone a much better chance of survival in side impact and roll over crashes.

Lesson #4 – Comfort and safety need to be reconciled
    The best way to survive accidents is to simply not get into them.  Many accidents, especially the lethal ones, are in part because of the driver’s loss of control.  The faster a car can stop and the harder it can corner to avoid other cars, the more likely the driver will be able to avoid an accident.  In general, comfort is the enemy of performance, and when it comes to handling this is especially true.  Soft suspension and tires make a car’s ride smooth and enjoyable, but also make it more difficult for cars to stop and reduce how hard they can corner, as well as resulting in unexpected handling characteristics.  One solution to this problem is the shock absorbers installed in the new Corvette.  The fluid in the shock absorbers increases in viscosity when a magnetic field is applied.  This allows for the car to have a very soft, comfortable ride, but when it senses an emergency maneuver such as hard braking or a sudden swerve, the shocks tighten, improving performance, which could be just what is needed to avoid an accident.
    Racecars also are designed to have predictable and intuitive handling, something that is often not the highest priority for streetcars that are more comfort oriented.  A little sacrifice in ride could allow for cars to handle safer and would make them a bit more fun to drive.  An example of this is lower profile performance tires tend to make cars’ ride harsher, but they also can reduce the car’s slip angle, and if applied correctly can make it easier for an in experienced driver to control their car.  (Slip angle is difference between where the wheel is pointing and where the wheel actually goes, a characteristic that most people never notice but plays a major role in whether people can keep a car under control at speed).

The performance car industry might be the last place most would look to improve car efficiency and safety, but the fact is that the technologies developed for racecars make them both incredibly safe and abstractly efficient.  If we all drove Formula 1 cars, living through even the worst high-speed accidents would be expected, rather than miraculous.  And if we all drove the lightweight Lotus Elise we could average 25 mpg as a nation. And on a side note, we would all have a lot more fun, at least I would…