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Trillium Automobile Dealers Association

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How airplane technology has influenced automobiles

Published Saturday, March 21st 2015

My curiosity about automobile technology goes back to when I was apprenticing to become an automotive technician. I would ask teachers and instructors where the latest technologies came from, and they'd often reply, "the aviation industry."

     One of the first early technologies that the airline industry adopted (which eventually migrated into cars) was anti-lock braking systems (ABS). Introduced by the airline industry in the 1930s, ABS brakes helped planes maneuver better when they needed to brake during quick deceleration or on low-traction surfaces.

     Today, ABS brakes are standard on most vehicles. The brake fluid pressure changes in an emergency stopping situation, which allows wheels to spin at a different rate of speed so that they don't lock up.

     Autonomous cruise control, lane departure warning and pre-crash systems are descended from 'fly-by-wire' avionics (electronic systems on aircraft and space ships) technology. In the late 1950s, aviation engineers began shifting an aircraft's control mechanisms to computers. That technology moved into cars in the 1990s, enabling them to detect other vehicles in front and make automatic brake adjustments to avoid an accident.

     Electronic stability control (ESC) is a technology that came from military avionics. With ESC, when a car is going off course or is involved in a skid, onboard sensors will detect the problem instantly and apply brakes to each wheel to compensate.

     The airline industry has also influenced automobile body materials. Aluminum has been a common feature in airplane construction since the early 20th century.

     Several automakers, including Audi and Ford, have been studying aluminum applications for automobiles for decades. In 1994, Audi  released a passenger A8 model whose body was made entirely of aluminum; and the 2015 Ford F-150 is equipped with all-aluminum panels, floors and truck beds. Today, aluminum body panels are quite common.

     The main impetus for using aluminum in cars is to make cars lighter (thus providing better fuel economy), to reduce emissions and improve safety. Aluminum is more malleable and elastic than steel and 10 - 40 per cent lighter than steel; plus, it's non-corrosive and recyclable.

     One interesting technology called Heads-Up Displays (HUDs) were pioneered for military fighter jets, which allowed pilots to see information (graphics, rate of speed) on a transparent windshield in front of them, rather than having to glance down at an instrument panel. HUDs are becoming increasingly common in passenger vehicles, allowing drivers to view speedometer, tachometer and navigation system displays  on their windshield. 

     Carbon fibre, a material that originated in the aerospace industry, is now found on car body panels and aftermarket kits. Last year, it was reported that a complete working car had been 3-D printed from carbon fibre plastic.

     One of the emerging automobile technologies that derived from avionics is solar panels. During the 1950s and 1960s, solar power was used for space exploration equipment (satellites and space stations).

     In recent years, Mitsubishi, Mazda and Toyota have experimented with solar powered components; Ford has developed a concept model (C-Max Solar Energi) that runs mostly on solar panels, and a Chinese entrepreneur (Li Hejun) has announced plans to launch five models of solar-powered cars, which will be able to operate up to 100 km after a four-hour charge.

    Over the years, my curiosity about technologies born in the skies has only increased. I'm sure that the automobile industry will continue to draw inspiration from the aviation industry in an effort to make cars more fuel efficient, safer and more enjoyable to drive.

     The TADA donated a 2015 Ford Mustang GT for Prostate Cancer Canada's Rock the Road Raffle, which raised $222,000 for prostate cancer research. At the Canadian International AutoShow in February, the TADA drew the name of the lucky winner - Farook Mansoor. Congratulations, Farook!

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