‘Morphing’ body panels and the future of aerodynamics, by Richard Hill

Richard Hill, Lotus’ Chief Eerodynamicist

As the chief aerodynamicist at Lotus, my day-to-day role involves collaborating with the designers of all new vehicles, from the early concept phase of a planned programme right through to testing the pre-production prototypes. I’ve been part of the Hethel team for more than 30 years and the focus is always on optimising the aerodynamic performance. It’s what helps us produce the world-class dynamic characteristics for which Lotus is renowned.

While the basic physics of air flow doesn’t change, the emphasis on different requirements and aerodynamic performance does. The ways of achieving improvements have also evolved over time. With that progress, and when considered in tandem with other technological advances, we can start to think about some exciting new ideas on how cars of the future might perform.

Let’s use active aerodynamics as an example. Many of you will be familiar with Drag Reduction Systems (DRS) from Formula 1 racing. We’ve used active aero on our newest model – the all-electric Evija hypercar – but it’s limited by the way components move and are controlled. They’re in one of several pre-determined positions and are actuated at set control points. What we’ve learned over the years is that aerodynamics is far more nuanced than that. It’s the subtle science of efficiently managing drag, downforce, the powertrain cooling requirements, the wind noise off the car’s A-pillars.

So what if your car could dramatically increase the number of active aero options open to you, the driver? What if the body panels could actually change shape? Forget the rear wing and its set positions; I’m talking about elements of the exterior which physically alter in multiple ways to optimise aerodynamic efficiency.

We call this concept ‘morphing’ – the idea that a panel can ‘morph’ from one shape to another and back again repeatedly. Materials experts are working on this exciting and enabling technology, creating an advanced surface that can be flexed with a mechanical input, heat, an electrical stimulus or even air pressure to change its aerodynamic profile.

And what if you could link that new technology to your car’s GPS mapping and a forward-facing camera? On-board systems would know where on a road your car is and that, for example, there’s a sweeping bend 100 metres further down the road. It’s the sort of bend you like to drive enthusiastically. Your car would automatically morph a particular body panel to progressively increase the amount of downforce generated as your car travels through the corner. The result is a more dynamic and engaging experience for you.

Now link the same system to your car’s environmental sensors, which will monitor not just the obvious factors like temperature and whether it’s raining, but also data on air pressure and humidity. These parameters further influence what happens to that morphing panel.

Taking it another step forward, the system could utilise so-called Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) technologies so your car would know if others were round that bend. And a Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) infrastructure could communicate to your car that there’s a pothole or standing water out of your sight. All of these inputs could be used to optimise the aerodynamics of your car as it enters that one corner, and it could update multiple times every second. The safety implications are profound.

There’s one last step you can take. In all of the above, remove the words ‘your car’ and add in ‘your Lotus’.