- A Lufthansa Boeing 747-8. Source: Lufthansa.

The connections between the Aviation and Automotive Industry

Four-Wheel Steering systems found in most cars were derived from the 747.

2y ago
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At a glance, the automotive and aviation industry may look like comparing night to day, with the biggest commonality of the two being that they make things that get you from point A to B as efficiently and conveniently as possible. One difference out of many is that the automotive industry is very competitive while the aviation industry is a massive duopoly with the only competition being between Airbus and Boeing as they eat up other companies to add to their market share.

However, those two industries have a lot in common, usually through innovations trickling down from one to another. Things widely used in the Automotive industry such as radar based driver assistance features, composite materials such as carbon fiber, aerodynamic design, four-wheel steering and even down force. I decided to write up this article to combine my love for aviation and automobiles, and show you how the two are related, and which technologies are derived or shared between the two.

1. Design

The Lamborghini Aventador Boeing Dreamliner Edition. Source: Luxuo.

The Lamborghini Aventador Boeing Dreamliner Edition. Source: Luxuo.

Aerodynamic design principles are followed throughout the automotive and aviation industry, usually for reasons of speed and range. Racing cars had always followed these principles since the 1940s, especially ones from Le Mans or Formula One. Most racing designers took to the skies for their inspiration after observing how a plane can go so fast. Thanks to aircraft design trying to reduce as much drag as possible, they're able to reach high speeds without needing such a powerful engine.

Overtime, the aerodynamic design of most racing cars began to trickle down into high-end road cars. It wasn't only functional, it also looked good. Many high-end sports cars featured aerodynamic, curvy and slippery designs back in the mid-1960s. It truly stood out of the crowd of boxy and square looking cars. At first, automakers who cater to the average buyer thought that a curvaceous design was mostly for looks. However, most people's cars started to feature a more aerodynamic design as car designers had realized that a lower drag coefficient could improve range. It became a strong selling point for most new cars back then, as its stand-out sports-car-esque looks and impressive fuel economy became a strong selling point.

Today, almost all cars sold on the road today feature an aerodynamically-minded design. Many supercars on the road today also feature design inspired by fighter jets, notable the Murcielago's fighter jet-esque side air intake and iconic fighter jet start/stop button found in all new Lamborghinis.

2. Radar and LIDAR-Based Driver Assistance Technologies

The advanced radar-based system found on the 2019 Audi A8. Source: Audi Deutschland.

The advanced radar-based system found on the 2019 Audi A8. Source: Audi Deutschland.

More and more modern vehicles sold these days feature advanced radar or LIDAR based driver-assistance systems such as adaptive cruise control, collision avoidance pedestrian crash avoidance mitigation, or PCAS for sort, lane departure assist, automatic lane centering, and so on. However, the most radar or LIDAR-based systems can be found in your car thanks to the aviation industry.

All aircraft are fitted with the TCAS radar system, an acronym for Traffic Collision Avoidance System. The TCAS system envelops the plane in an imaginary radar bubble, and if two aircraft are flying too close to each other or interfere with another aircraft's bubble, the TCAS will sound an alert to avoid a potential mid-air collision. Automobile collision avoidance systems, such as blind-spot monitoring or braking systems work in a similar way. If a car is driving too close to another car, an alarm would sound to alert the driver to take action.

Many driver assistance features are based on radar. However, LIDAR-based driver assistance features are found in many cars sold today, but not aircraft. LIDAR works by firing a pulsated laser into a target and measuring the reflected pulses with a sensor. Many autonomous vehicles use a LIDAR-based system, with current driver assistance systems switching from radar-based to LIDAR-based as its response and processing time is quicker.

The aviation industry is slowly adapting LIDAR-based systems to be implemented in newer aircraft. Boeing, in partnership with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, is currently developing LIDAR-based turbulence detection systems to be implemented into newer aircraft. Currently, it is in its testing phase, with prototype LIDAR systems currently fitted and tested on a Boeing 777 Freighter test aircraft, and will be ready for commercial use in approximately 2020 or beyond.

3. Vehicular Communication Systems

A diagram on how vehicular communication systems would work. Source: Transmedia Newswire.

A diagram on how vehicular communication systems would work. Source: Transmedia Newswire.

One breakthrough made on the road to a fully autonomous future are vehicular communication systems. Vehicular Communication Systems are where vehicles communicate and exchange information with each other such as safety warnings and traffic information through dedicated short-range communication devices ranging from a 5.8 GHz to a 5.9 GHz band, depending on the region. Some safety benefits are the elimination of excessive costs of traffic collisions and the prevention of even more deaths. Congestion would also be eliminated along, which increases the overall productivity of an economy.

The future of aviation is based on vehicular communication systems too. Newer aircraft from Airbus and Boeing are developed with VCS systems to prevent airspace congestion, delays and accidents. It also eliminates the need of an air traffic control system. Today, aircraft share only basic information between each other such as airspeed, altitude, etc via an air traffic control unit stationed on the ground.

4. Autonomy

The Autopilot system found on a Boeing 777. Source: DeviantArt, TomB-Vienna.

The Autopilot system found on a Boeing 777. Source: DeviantArt, TomB-Vienna.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Autopilot systems are widely used in commercial aircraft to control its movement and trajectory without constant pilot input. Other systems that work in conjunction with the autopilot is the auto-throttle, a system controlling engine power based on airspeed. Autopilot systems have been implemented into commercial aircraft since the 1930s, when the Royal Aircraft Establishment in the United Kingdom created a "pilot assistance" device using a gyroscope to move flight controls. The Autopilot system takes full advantage of all of the aircraft's systems.

Autonomous cars are also taking the world by storm. It works in a similar fashion to aircraft autopilot. The car's system steers and changes the car's direction based on the data readings from the all of the car's sensors. However, full autonomy is not ready in the aviation or the automobile industry, as its made to only assist the operator of the machine. Landing an aircraft on autopilot is strongly discouraged by the International Air Transport Association, or IATA, and should only be done in emergencies. Today, all drivers are required to pay attention to the road and not abuse the system, as most self-driving cars on the road today are not fully autonomous.

5. Satelite Navigation and Tracking

The GPS system found in a Toyota Corolla. Source: CNN Business.

The GPS system found in a Toyota Corolla. Source: CNN Business.

GPS systems are extremely vital to aviation, as they tell the exact location of the aircraft and tell the pilots the safest and most efficient route to take. The infamous disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 emphasizes how important it is to always keep your planes tracked. There are four different kinds of telecommunication networks. ACARS, a hybrid of VHF, satelite and HF networks, the Mode S network, Satelite networks such as Inmarsat, Globalstar, etc, and the GSM network.

The next generation of aviation tracking will feature active, real-time aircraft tracking. After the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, new aircraft tracking systems have been developed to prevent another similar incident. Instead of the current "bread-crumb approach", where an aircraft gives its location once every few minutes, active aircraft tracking sends position reports of aircraft at real time, constantly. If the unit stops transmitting upon impact in case of an accident, the historical transmissions will give the last known location of the aircraft, its speed, direction and altitude.

The automotive industry takes full advantage of GPS systems derived from ones meant for aircraft or military use, as they're more accurate. Today, many GPS systems such as Google Maps, Waze, or even first-party manufacturer systems are used by many drivers around the world to get around. Car tracking is also useful when you forgot where you parked your car or it had got stolen, so you just pull out the tracker and you could see its real-time location.

6. Use of Composite and Lightweight Materials

The Lamborghini Sesto Elemento, co-developed by Boeing. Source: Lamborghini.

The Lamborghini Sesto Elemento, co-developed by Boeing. Source: Lamborghini.

The use of composite and lightweight materials can be widely found throughout both the automobile and aviation industry. Newer aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 XWB are built mainly out of carbon fiber or other composite materials instead of heavier metals. Before carbon fiber, aluminium was used to build aircraft, as it was lighter and stronger compared to steel. Today, aircraft is still built by aluminium.

Slowly, the use of composites begin to trickle down into the automotive industry. Early adaptations of carbon fiber in cars could be found in Formula 1. In 1981, the McLaren MP4/1 was the very first car to feature a full carbon-fiber monocoque design. That gave McLaren a huge advantage in weight savings, as all of their competitors used aluminium. It was the disruptive force that changed the face of racing and supercar design, with many high-end sports cars featuring carbon fiber.

The extensive use of aluminium in cars also came from the aviation industry. Automakers wanted a new, strong, lightweight, but cheap material to work with. They noticed that the aviation industry was using mainly aluminium to build their planes. The first extensive applications of aluminium into a car can be traced all the way back to the 1990s, with the Honda NSX and the McLaren F1 debuting with a body and chassis made mostly out of aluminum. Today, almost every new car is made of aluminium.

The Lamborghini Sesto Elemento is the best example of the use of composite and lightweight materials in the automotive industry. The entire car is made out of carbon fiber, co-developed by Boeing. As a result, the car only weighs as much as a Ford Fiesta, but is powered by a 570 horsepower V10.

7. Four-Wheel Steering

The gear lever of a Boeing 747. Source: Flickr, Tim de Groot.

The gear lever of a Boeing 747. Source: Flickr, Tim de Groot.

Four wheel steering could be found in most cars and trucks today. In most systems, the rear wheels are steered by a computer and actuators, and turn to assist the steering of the car. At low speeds, ear wheels turn opposite to the front wheels, reducing the turning radius, which is critical for larger vehicles such as trucks, tractors, and long wheelbase vehicles.

The Boeing 747 uses a similar system. When the aircraft made its debut in 1969, it was way bigger and longer than anything else in the sky, and it still is today. The newest variant of the 747, the Boeing 747-8, has and a wingspan of 68 meters, and a fuselage or a body as long as 76.3 meters, the longest aircraft in the world in terms of body length. The 747 also has a massive turning radius, and its maneuverability may be tested in some runways. A Boeing 747 needs a pavement width of at least 46.6 meters across to make a 180-degree turn. However, most runways feature a pavement width of 45 meters

In response to this, a turning pad at the end of the runway is built so the 747 can be able to make a 180-degree turn. However, the 747 has a feature that only a few other wide-body aircraft have, which is body-gear steering. The main landing gear of the 747 consists of four landing gear assemblies, the wing gears and the body gears, one on each side of the aircraft. Each gear has two actuators which can rotate each gear up to 13 degrees to either side.

If the pilot requires to steer the aircraft, he moves the nose gear tiller to steer the nose gear. If the nose gear is deflected more than 20 degrees to either side, the body gear steering system jumps into action and rotates towards the opposite direction of the nose gear, similar to the four-wheel steering system found on a car.

8. Land Speed Records

The SSC Bloodhound. Source: Ars Technica.

The SSC Bloodhound. Source: Ars Technica.

Most land speed record cars are powered by fighter jet engines, reaching speeds above 600 kilometers per hour. Before jet-powered land speed record cars, wheel and engine powered speed record cars could only reach speeds up to 63 kilometers per hour before the 1900s. Obviously, technology has come a long way since, with the world's fastest car, the Koenigsegg Agera RS, having a recorded top speed of 457 kilometers per hour.

In 1963, the first jet powered land speed record car, the Spirit of America, set a world speed record of 655 kilometers per hour. The car was powered by a General Electric J47 engine sourced form a F-86 figher. Currently, the land speed record holder is the ThrustSSC, driven by retired RAF pilot Andy Green. Powered by two Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan engines, it had managed to hit speeds as high as 1223 kilometers/hour in 1999.

Currently, the SSC Bloodhound is under development to beat the record that was untouched for almost twenty years at the time this article was written. The car would by powered by a Rolls-Royce Eurojet EJ200 after-burning turbofan, paired to a Nammo HTP Hybrid Rocket system, with a Jaguar V8 acting as an HTP pump.

9. The Internal Combustion Engine

A Rolls-Royce Merlin engine found in a Spitfire.

A Rolls-Royce Merlin engine found in a Spitfire.

For the first forty years since the first flight of the Wright Brothers, aircraft were mainly powered by internal combustion engines before the introduction of turbofans. They work exactly like the internal combustion engine you would find in your car. The basic mechanical design of the Wright engine is remarkably similar to modern, four-stroke, four cylinder automobile engines.

Some of the most popular internal combustion engines found in aircraft were the Ranger L-440 engine found in the Fairchild PT-19, the Pratt and Whitney R-2800 engine found in the Convair CV-240, and the legendary Rolls-Royce Merlin V12 engine, found in the legendary Spitfire fighter jets that had played a major role in the Battle of Britain. Rolls-Royce was crazy enough to squeeze one of those engines from a Spitfire into a one-off and surprisingly, road legal car.

10. An Electric Future

Zunum's Aero Hybrid aircraft. Source: Zunum Aero.

Zunum's Aero Hybrid aircraft. Source: Zunum Aero.

Both the automotive and aviation industry look like they will be heading towards an electric future. New electric cars are hitting showroom floors more frequently than ever before, and we are at our peak when it comes to battery technology. Electric car pioneers like Tesla had drove the automotive industry to an electric future, and had proven to the world that electric cars can be as good as a conventional combustion-engine powered car without any compromises. Big car companies such as VAG, Renault-Nissan, Daimler AG and General Motors are currently developing new electric cars for the future.

Electric planes are also making its way into the market, with smaller aircraft marketed towards independent leisure pilots. Electric propeller aircraft are currently under development to replace regular fuel-powered propeller aircraft. Solar powered aircraft are also making their debut in the aviation industry which are able to fly such long ranges. Hybrid aircraft are also making their way to the market. For the aviation industry, it looks like a part of it will go electric.

In Conclusion

The Grand Tour's jet-powered amphibious vehicle. Source: Amazon.

The Grand Tour's jet-powered amphibious vehicle. Source: Amazon.

Turns out, the automotive and aviation industry do have a few things in common, such as the ten things that I had mentioned above. Despite their differences, the two will continue to go on hand-in-hand into the future, with possibly newer and more advanced developments which could be applied to both industries to make our lives that bit more simpler.

Oh, and putting jet engines into car shows do make one heck of a gag.

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Comments (1)

  • Thanks for the article and insight. Indeed, there's a couple of notable similarities. You got me thinking...

      2 years ago
1