Thursday, September 9, 2010

Japan's moon shot

Because of the terms of the Japanese surrender in 1945, they no longer have a real aerospace industry.  So Japan's rocket scientists work for their car companies. The Lexus LFA is their version of a moon shot.  If you think the comparison is overdrawn, consider the following.

Like the moon shot, this car is wildly impractical.  Lexus will only make 500 of them because they are probably losing $1 million for each car sold even though the selling price is around $400,000.  There is no need for a car that can rocket to over 200 mph (325 kph) yet still idle gracefully in a traffic jam.

The ONLY way such a car could be built is if it could be justified as an engineering exercise.  And what an exercise!
  • This car required ten years to build.  The Japanese are not known for sitting around so obviously a LOT has been accomplished.
  • The 4.8 liter, 550 hp engine has a 9000 rpm redline--that's 150 revolutions per second so each cylinder must fill and fire 75 times per second.  In a ten-cylinder engine, that's 750 explosions per second without a misfire.  (Good lord!)
  • This car only weighs 3500 pounds (1600 kg) and is still outfitted as a Lexus--nav system, premium stereo, and an air conditioner that works, etc.  This could only be accomplished by inventing new ways to fabricate parts from carbon fiber.  Toyota MAY have finally solved the problem of reliably mass-producing parts with this wonderful but very difficult material.

But what impresses me most is the subtle aerodynamics.  One look at the view the car presents to the wind and I was immediately impressed with what Toyota's  aero guys have accomplished.  Keep in mind that they had to solve two difficult problems.  1) They had to keep the car planted on the road at speeds that exceed the take-off speed of a 747, and 2) They had to supply a 550 hp engine with the massive amounts of air it needs to run and cool it.

There are many nuances in the aero package but let me point out one.  There is a distinct aero fence that starts at the lower bumper, follows across the hood, passes across the top of the door, and winds up in a scoop (red line).  In between are the rearview mirrors that have small aero fences to redirect the air that spills off the windshield.  If you want to see what a thousand hours of wind-tunnel tweaking will produce, this is an example.

And here's this picture without my mark-ups.  I have been using it as my computer's desktop for several weeks and still marvel at the sheer genius it demonstrates.

I am not worried that Toyota has been off wasting a lot of money and genius on a vanity project.  Because here's the payoff.  Aerodynamics is a very big deal when it comes to producing a fuel-efficient car.  Lexus is about to launch a car as serious as the LFA is frivolous.  It's called the CT 200h and is designed to carry four people in maximum comfort yet be small enough to maneuver in crowded European or Asian cities.  Oh yes, it should also get superb gas mileage.  So it absolutely MUST have a great aero package.

Notice the similarities between the noses on LFA and CT 200h.  Veblen pointed out the the nearest thing to the Instinct of Workmanship was the Instinct of Idle Curiosity.  Sometimes it is a good thing for Producers to stretch their imaginations by doing things that are wildly impractical.  It's good for the soul and it raises the bar for more ordinary tasks.

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