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Big is beautiful: Ford's new pickup may look a brute but there are subtle touches about it that give it an aerodynamic grace.

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By any definition, Ford's new 2009 F-250 pickup is a massive beast. It s designed for real job sites, not suburban poseurs, and that means carrying some massive loads. So, brute force is part of the pickup's definition. Hauling down the highway, it pushes a lot of air out of its way.

But, in the process of developing the remake of the F-Series trucks, Ford designers paid careful attention to the subtleties of its styling, particularly where it came to aerodynamics. Among the changes made for next year, they added an air dam under the F-250's huge front bumper. At first glance, you might not even notice, said Pat Schiavone, who oversees truck design at Ford, but the impact is significant, improving the pickup's mileage by almost 8%.

After the last big energy shock, carmakers placed a lot of emphasis on aerodynamic design. Ford developed a reputation as an industry leader with the so-called "aero-look" that helped make its original 1986 Taurus sedan one of the best-selling passenger cars in the US. Then came the light truck boom, and soft, jellybean shapes gave way to the sharp angles and blunt shapes of the pickup and SUV.

Today, driven by the need to boost fuel economy, whatever the cost, carmakers are looking at alternatives. Some options, such as hybrids and electric vehicles, can meet those demands--but at tremendous cost. Aerodynamic design, on the other hand, can yield big improvements at virtually no cost, other than for time spent in the wind tunnel.

It's the low-hanging fruit of which there's not much left, said Schiavone, during an interview at Ford's Product Development Centre, in Dearborn, Michigan. "So you go after it." In some cases, he noted, it may be possible to add as much as three miles per US gallon to the fuel economy of today's passenger cars and light trucks simply by making them more slippery at highway speeds.

And, even for town driving, aerodynamics can have a sizeable impact, as General Motors has discovered during the development of its plug-in hybrid, or "extended-range EV", the Chevrolet Volt.

The prototype, 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 GM 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 needed to quickly detach. The effect was dramatic, boosting battery-only range from 30 miles to nearly 45 miles. That, the carmaker believes, will be enough to make it work on battery power alone for typical US journeys.

"Everything's going to be more aerodynamic 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, such as 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 is also the issue of aesthetics--and the promise of gaining a competitive edge.

Ford's original Taurus leapfrogged the competition with improvements in quality, refinement and features, and its ovoid shape made it instantly recognisable amid the then-standard wedge-and box-shaped sedans.

Schiavone believes a truly stand-out aero design could yield a similar payoff today. A case is the Toyota Prius, the world's best-selling hybrid-electric vehicle. 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," said 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, he said. "People are ready for a 21st-century look," he said. That look may have more in common with the cars 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 said, with a broad grin. "But where we are today, anything's possible."
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Title Annotation:AUTOMOTIVE FOCUS; Ford F-Series, F-250
Author:Eisenstein, Paul
Publication:Professional Engineering Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 25, 2008
Words:744
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