One of my good friends from college has this lofty plan to make a science fiction movie at some point in his life (theoretically before the advent of actual science fiction) in which all of the spaceships will be based on the designs of deep-sea marine life.
It turns out this is exactly what scientists are doing nowadays: basing innovations off of naturally-occurring phenomena.
Turns Out Mother Nature is WAY Smarter Than We Are
Nature is the most efficient system you can possibly imagine. Since the days of Leonardo da Vinci we have looked to birds to figure out how to fly, butterflies to figure out how to make the color of our technology more vibrant, squid brains to create new kinds of circuitry. One idea that has fallen out of favor recently (but which I think would be crazy cool to bring back) is the idea of creating biomimetic internal and external structures for our cars.
Bionic is Not the Same as Biomimetic, But It’s Still Pretty Cool
Way back in the dark ages, before Bieber, before Miley, before The Dark Knight, when I was still in high school, it was 2005 and DaimlerChrysler put out their own concept for a bionic car. While we’re on the topic, “bionic” initially meant something along the same lines as biomimetic, and then in the post-Six Million Dollar Man world, it picked up the connotation that it was something that replaced a natural part of your body and made you superhuman. This connotation probably wasn’t discouraged by DaimlerChrysler.
DaimlerChrylser, while researching a more streamlined and aerodynamic model for a vehicle, stumbled upon a little dude called a boxfish. As its name implies, the fish is a little funky looking, at least as far as fish go; however, the boxfish is an incredibly streamlined animal, and using it as a model, the engineers were able to create a four-seater car concept that produced a drag coefficient of only 0.19. For comparison, the 2005 model year Ford Escape hybrid had a drag coefficient of 0.40.
This aerodynamic design led to a measured 70mpg for the diesel-powered Mercedes Benz concept that DaimlerChrysler eventually rolled out.
All because of a fish.
Drive Like a Bumblebee: Safely
Fast forward to 2008. The Dark Knight came out and there was much rejoicing; all was right with the world. Nissan was making a push to create a system called Safety Shield, described as “the vehicle that helps protect people.” Instead of making their cars simply more crash-resistant in terms of structure, they wanted their vehicles to actually be able to help people avoid crashes. Their inspiration for the project came from nature’s safest driver, the humble bumblebee, which is not a phrase that I recommend you try saying out loud. It only ends in embarrassment.
So think about it. How often have you seen a bee crash into something? Was your answer “never”? It should have been, because bees have crazy vision and they can see obstacles in 300 degrees around them. That would be like if you could look over both your shoulders at the same time. Bees are able to do this by virtue of the fact that their eyes are actually what are called compound eyes, which means instead of one opening to the optic nerve for light to travel (like human eyes), they have thousands of facets on their eyes that lead to the optic nerve.
Nissan took that into account in creating the LRF (Laser Range Finder) which senses the area around the vehicle, and installed it in a test robot named Robot Car BR23C (why they didn’t call it Robot Car BeeR23C is probably because it makes it look like an alcoholic robot). RCBR23C uses the LRF to sense things within two meters of itself and turn its wheels 90 degrees or more to avoid it. The researchers hope to use the technology to halve the total of fatal and serious accidents in Nissan vehicles in Japan by 2015, in comparison with 1995.
We All Knew It Was Coming… SHARKCAR
For once, my section title is not some ironic joke or anything, we’re talking about a car LITERALLY covered in material based on shark skin. I mean, it’s not exactly Sharknado, but it’s something.
Shark skin is a lot like a golf ball. Turns out, the dimples covering the surface of your favorite Slazenger 1 (insert obscure Goldfinger joke here) make the ball go a lot faster than if it were just a perfect sphere; sharks’ skin is covered in dimples the same way, which makes it move much faster in the water. The company who decided to apply this scientific fact to automobiles, SkinzWraps, apparently decided since they were modeling automobile wraps on shark skins, that… y’know, that’s just too easy. I’m gonna leave that low-hanging fruit be.
SkinzWraps (I think I’m more annoyed by the double plural than I am by the “z”) claims an 18-20% improvement in MPG. A blogger from Dallas took a test drive in one of the wrapped vehicles and said the numbers matched up. Apparently this skinwrap technology is fickle to a degree; it was reported that the CEO of the company noticed a loss of efficiency during the testing phases. It turned out the dimples in his car’s wrap had filled in with pollen, and after washing the car, he regained the previous efficiency. I always knew there were more reasons out there to hate pollen.
DISCLAIMER: From SkinzWraps’ website, I’m not seeing anything about their MPG-Plus material (which is what the specialty dimpled wrap is called) other than 4-year old press releases about it. It appears this wrap might have gone the way of the buffalo.
Let’s Bring It All Back In
Some of the best ideas of the last decade have been scientists applying what we can learn from nature to problems in the transportation industry that need solved. Cars need to be more aerodynamic to increase fuel efficiency and reduce drag; cars should be able to help avoid accidents; &c. This kind of science is rarely at the forefront anymore, or at least the sources of inspiration aren’t. I don’t know if it’s seen as taking steps backwards to go forward, but I’d love to hear more stories of animals inspiring technology. If you’ve got any good ones, share in the comments below.
For more on biomimicry in general, check out Janine Benyus’ TEDtalk below.