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Yellow sports car. Original car design via Shutterstock

Car designs have changed quite bit since their inception, and it’s fair to say that cars went through a lot of designs trends, driven by an endless cycle of innovation of technology, materials and usage model. After more than a century of car innovation, there is no sign that we’ve seen the end of it.

From curious inventions and leisure vehicles in the early days, cars have become objects of mass production and a necessity of modern life. Each technological innovation has introduced new usage models, which in turn induced new technological innovations and materials that spark a new cycle.

The engine of change

In the very early days, cars designs were derived from their closest cousins, the carriages, which ultimately proved to be an unpractical design. Engines were the first technology that enabled and influenced car designs, and cars did not start looking like modern cars until the engines were efficient and practical enough. Then usage model took over: depending on their usage, cars were designed with different shapes and functions, which led to further refinements and innovations.

With continued progress in car engine power, cars design evolved to allow for faster, more stable, and safer vehicles. Although engine power still evolves today, the emphasis seems to have shifted towards aesthetics and practicality – after all, there are speed limits, and weight tends go be reduced in new designs, so it is more likely that engine will evolve in power efficiency rather than in raw power.

While engines have been the primary driver for change in the early days, when it comes to changing the shape of cars, there is no greater revolution than the computer.

Computer: the ultimate design tool

When computers started to be used as design tools, a dramatic change occurred: computers allowed many more iterations of the design process, and each iteration improves the end-product quality a little further. Computers lets designers try and undo actions, save or branch out the design. Computers are also a great time saver that free designers from tedious calculations and drawing tasks.

But that was only the beginning. Today, computers also let designers run physics simulations which can be used to test the resistance of materials, and create a virtual environment where countless scenarios can be simulated without the cost, and the risks, or real-world experiments. Without computers, it would be simply impossible to run such thorough tests within the same time-frame and budget. Computers can also run virtual wind tunnels to test aerodynamic properties of the designs.

But design technology can only go as far as the materials that are used to build cars, and that’s yet another area of car design technology that has changed dramatically since the car was invented.

Materials

Historically, steel has been the material of choice to build cars. It is solid enough to build the structure of the car, and it can withstand eventual impacts – to a point. Over the decades, cars took on more and more steel (and engine horsepower), but eventually, energetic realities sunk in and in recent history, car manufacturers had to come up with lighter designs that did not compromise the structural integrity of the vehicle.

Aluminum has been used since early in the century to lighten the engines and various parts of the car, and the material was instrumental in making aviation viable. Today, Aluminum is used in ever greater quantities an modern cars, and this trend is likely to continue for some time.

In addition to Aluminum, carbon fiber and carbon nanotubes are futuristic material that may be of assistance where an extraordinary ratio between weight and resistance is required. Carbon nanotubes are particularly interesting because they can be used to enhance the energy efficiency of electric cars capacitors, but it can also serve as an ultra-light and ultra-hard material that could improve the safety of passenger areas.

Production of such an exotic material has not reached the point where it can be massively utilized, but chances are that the next technological revolution will be based on new materials.

Future designs

Energy efficiency

Energy efficiency is the number one priority for long or short term future car technology, the logical reasons being the constant increase of oil prices and the booming demand for automobiles in emerging countries. In a previous article we have explored in detail electric and hybrid engines, which are the cleanest energy replacement to oil-powered motors.  Other alternative fuel vehicles recently experimented includes hydrogen cars, compressed-air cars and liquid nitrogen cars.

Sensors and artificial vision for safety

The cars of the future would certainly be equipped with safety sensors and artificial vision systems that are expected to significantly reduce road accident casualties.

Over the recent years a number of demo and concepts have been showcased at international technology and car shows. Collision assistance sensors are already in the market, a good example is Mobileye, a collision prevention and mitigation solution that uses a smart camera placed on the front windshield inside the vehicle. Another example of computer vision usage in automobiles is the lane departure warning (LDW) system, a feature that will be offered in high-volume models by 2011.

Driverless car

Autonomous car prototypes have been developed since the eighties, and many companies have started testing driverless cars, commercial models are expected as early as 2015. In June 2011, Nevada became the first state to authorize the use of autonomous vehicles on public roads, allowing car manufacturers to conducts test drives in a real environment. In 2010, during the VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge, four driverless electric vans run the 13,000 km from Italy to China, making it the first intercontinental trip with autonomous vehicles.

Smart Roads and smart cars

Future innovations aim to develop and integrates smarter road and smarter cars, primarily for improving safety and also to increase efficiency of the transportation system. Officially named Vehicle Infrastructure Integration, the initiative focus on communications systems between vehicles on the road (via On-Board Equipment, OBE), and between vehicles and the roadside infrastructure (via Roadside Equipment, RSE). More information on the topic is available on this page.

© Photo: Yellow sports car. Original car design via Shutterstock

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