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Rocket Science in Your Car: 7 Aerospace Technologies On the Road

While driving, you might fantasize that your car is a fighter jet barreling along at Mach 2 or that you're in a rocket ship cruising to Mars. In a surprising number of ways, your daydreams may not be that far off – many of the technologies that make your car faster, safer and more energy-efficient have come from the aerospace industry.
/ Source: TechNewsDaily

While driving, you might fantasize that your car is a fighter jet barreling along at Mach 2 or that you're in a rocket ship cruising to Mars. In a surprising number of ways, your daydreams may not be that far off – many of the technologies that make your car faster, safer and more energy-efficient have come from the aerospace industry.

Here are seven examples of the rocket science in your car.

Solar Panels

Although solar cells were not invented with satellites in mind, that's where they found their first real commercial success as the space race got under way in the late 1950s.

Nowadays, solar cells are increasingly appearing on cars' rooftops. Solar panels come as part of a "solar roof" options package on the 2010 Toyota Prius, for example, and the Fisker Karma hybrid sports sedan will soon boast a whole roof-spanning array.

In the Prius' case, the solar panels power a small fan that helps cool the interior of the car while it's parked. The Karma's bigger array will electrify a similar ventilation system and add a few extra miles to the electric sports car's range per week as well.

Given the limited amount of surface area available on a typical passenger vehicle, solar panels are not yet — and might not ever be — efficient enough to energize an entire car. But think of them as a nice way for your car to soak up some rays, kind of like how humans do via sunroofs and convertible tops.

GPS Navigation

Dashboard navigation systems linked up to the satellite-based GPS (Global Positioning System) have become very popular over the last decade.

Approximately 30 satellites provide the aerial coverage by beaming signals down to Earth. These satellites help pinpoint a GPS unit's location via triangulation – essentially, the time delay from the receipt of a signal is compared to when it was sent from three satellites. These signals can determine latitude, longitude and (if a fourth satellite is involved) altitude.

GPS, originally planned by the United States' Department of Defense for military purposes, became available for civilian use as it blossomed in the 1990s.

The accuracy for commercially available GPS is presently on the order of 33 feet (10 meters), and that will improve with the continued launch of newer, more advanced satellites. Meanwhile, although many people swear by their Garmins and TomToms, a number of hair-raising tales have surfaced of in-car navigation systems leading people astray and sometimes into harm's way.




Aero Shutter

GM's 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco features an innovative "aero shutter" behind its front grill that actively opens or closes in order to boost fuel efficiency.

At low speeds, the shutters remain open to allow for engine-cooling air flow. At highway speeds, the shutters automatically seal up to improve aerodynamics. GM said that the air shutter system adds almost half a mile (0.8 km) per gallon of fuel efficiency in combined city and highway driving.

GM engineer Greg Fadler, who worked for several years on fighter jets, said he drew inspiration for the shutter from similar air intake vents on aircraft such as the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18.

Other vehicle manufacturers including BMW have also experimented with aero shutters, and GM plans to roll out the technology to other vehicles in its fleet. Expect to see more of the devices in the coming years.

Heads-Up Displays (HUDs)

Although not very common in cars yet, keep a lookout (pun intended) for "heads-up displays" (HUDs) in more production vehicles in the future.

HUD systems place infographics, such as rate of speed, right on a transparent windshield. The technology was originally developed so fighter pilots could keep their eyes on the sky in front of them rather than down at an instrument panel. [Read 'NASCAR of the Skies' to Feature Video Game-Like Interactivity ]

GM introduced HUDs to the passenger car market back in the late 1980s and more developed, colorful or "night vision" versions are presently available on vehicles from other major manufacturers such as Honda and Toyota.

As TechNewsDaily reported last year, GM is working on a next-generation HUD for its vehicles circa 2018 that will let drivers select certain info they want displayed on their windshields.

Various technologies exist to create HUD effects, and GM has opted for a transparent chemical phosphor coating that lights up when struck by a laser.

Electronic Stability Control

Electronic stability control (ESC) systems help drivers keep a handle on their vehicles during skids.

If a car is not going in the direction intended by its operator – as judged by the orientation of the steering column – various sensors detect this problem and then an ESC computer compensates. Brakes are automatically and quickly applied to individual wheels in a way a human driver could not, and for that matter would not be able to figure out near-instantaneously, especially during a panic-inducing skid (and after all, you only have one brake pedal).

ESC in cars is derived from military avionics. Without the aid of computers, modern jet fighters would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a human pilot to safely maneuver and operate given high-speed aerodynamic complexities. [Read: By Land, Sea, Air and Space: Top 12 Military Tech Stories of 2010 ]

The systems evolved in the 1990s and now almost all automakers have a form of ESC under a variety of fancy names, from StabiliTrak on GM cars to Vehicle Stability Assist in Hondas.

Anti-Lock Brakes

Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) are an integral part of ESC, and themselves have been on cars for decades.

In an emergency stopping situation, when a brake pedal might get slammed to the floor, the wheels can lock up and a vehicle can start skidding. ABS changes the brake fluid pressure in each wheel's brakes as necessary to allow the wheel to spin slower or faster and to prevent it from locking up. The pulsing sensation that drivers feel in their foot is the ABS automatically pumping the brakes in this situation.

ABS got its start in airplanes around 1930 as the craft proved difficult to maneuver during braking on the ground during landings.

Carbon Fiber

Many of us are familiar with carbon fiber-reinforced polymers for their use in sporting goods, from hockey sticks to tennis rackets to bicycle frames. The material's qualities of high strength and low weight endeared it to the aerospace industry back in the 1960s, as well as the car racing circuit. A few high-end, mass-market vehicles have carbon-fiber body panels, such as the hood on the Chevrolet Corvette, and aftermarket kits are available. But because carbon fiber remains expensive pound-for-pound compared to steel, everyday passenger cars have not yet reaped its benefits.

That looks set to change over the next five to ten years, said Dan Houston, chair of the United States Council for Automotive Research's Automotive Composites Consortium Materials Working Group and a technical specialist at Ford Motor Company.

Houston thinks tightening fuel economy standards and improving carbon fiber manufacturing methods are improvements that will help pave the way for the material will begin replacing steel structural components this decade.

"Cost has been the Achilles' heel for carbon fiber in the auto business," Houston told TechNewsDaily. "But now everyone will be more pressured for weight-saving and fuel efficiency."

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