Friday, June 13, 2008

Is a Fabric-Covered Car In Our Future?

By Chris Haak


Earlier this week, BMW revealed its GINA fabric-covered car. Yes, you heard that right; instead of steel, aluminum, fiberglass, or plastic, this car is covered in fabric. If you haven't seen photos of the car, it's not what you would probably picture if someone told you that they had a car covered in fabric (personally, my visual would be of a very boxy shape covered by cotton sheets; in other words, a queen size bed with windows and doors).

Instead, BMW has built a car that uses a tough, stretch-resistant fabric stretched over a somewhat-movable substructure that not only minimizes body seams (there are only four distinct body panels), but can also change shape depending on the situation. For example, when the headlights aren't needed, they are hidden by fabric. When they are turned on, the fabric covering them is drawn back and the lights appear. The substructure itself has some electro- and electro-hydraulic controls to change the shape of the car's outer skin. This is helpful not only for aesthetic purposes, but also for practical ones such as allowing the grille openings to become larger when the engine needs more cooling volume. And of course, fabric is a far, far lighter material than steel, or even more expensive materials such as aluminum. So, will our future vehicles be covered by fabric instead of steel or more conventional materials?

I really doubt it. I can see so many potential issues with using fabric, no matter how tough it may be, to form a vehicle's body. It certainly does allow for a more aerodynamic shape, as well as the possibility of further enhancing aerodynamic efficiency for high-speed cruising (possibly at the temporary expense of the vehicle's appearance). But how good will the fabric look when birds start pooping on it? How will it be cleaned? Owners won't be able to take it to a car wash, and the material is probably extremely expensive and not removable, so slipping off your car's "clothing" to throw into an industrial washing machine at the local laundromat also sounds like it's out of the question.

Then there are the dual issues of safety and security. Thieves love soft-top convertibles, because a sharp knife is really all that they need to gain access to a car's interior. Now imagine an entire vehicle made of fabric; the whole thing is an invitation to slice into the trunk, or the interior, and remove anything of value. Even if the miscreants aren't stealing things from the car, hacking up a BMW would also be an enormously attractive proposition to a potential vandal. In terms of safety, unless a GINA-like car had a very strong steel substructure (with an integrated crash absorbing design), I'd probably be kind of concerned about having fabric between others cars and myself and loved ones instead of a half-ton of steel.

It's entirely possible that some of these issues may be worked around; for example, using an extremely tough weave fabric such as Kevlar, while likely not very flexible, would make it more difficult for vandals or thieves to access or damage the car. Building an adequate crash structure underneath the fabric might make the car do well enough in crash tests to convince consumers to buy the car.

When I attend auto shows, I love to see new production cars make their debut, but I also love concept cars that push the limits of design and engineering creativity, while still looking like a "normal" vehicle. I applaud BMW for coming up with a creative way to reduce the considerable heft of the modern automobile, while making an attractive (if impractical) styling statement simultaneously. But I don't think we'll be seeing fabric-covered cars hit the mainstream for a very long time, if ever.

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