Change Can Cost
The new focus of aerodynamics in cars will be the little details that create drag-inducing turbulence. It hasn't been cost-effective to address these details in the past, but now smoother grilles, cleaner undercarriages and even the gaps between body panels are the things that car designers think about.
As Christopher Chapman, chief designer at Hyundai Design North America, tells us, when a designer sees an automobile these days, he sees an airplane. "In an airplane, all the surfaces are aerodynamic," he says.
Like an airplane, the underside of an automobile is as important to its passage through the air as the top and sides. Chapman continues, "The car has lots of ground effect, and there are lots of improvements that can be done on the underside for tremendous aerodynamic gains. The problem in the past has been that customers have not been willing to pay for things like panels that fill gaps on the underside that they can't see."
With the increased emphasis on fuel efficiency, though, carmakers are spending more on those heretofore "unseen" aero improvements. It's all part of the ongoing effort to reduce aerodynamic drag, which is the combination of factors that impede a vehicle's passage through the air. Wind resistance occurs at the front, as a car tries to push itself through the air. A turbulent vacuum typically is created at the rear of the vehicle and literally pulls it backward.
While aerodynamics affects the entire surface of a vehicle, only the surfaces directly visible to the car buyer have received most of the attention of designers, since the styling improvements could be translated into sales appeal. Today, though, aerodynamics engineers and designers are focusing on previously overlooked areas. They're working on things such as shutters that close grille openings at higher speeds to reduce wind resistance.