National Geographic : 1983 Jul
couldn't sell it. Apparently when people are ready to move from a bicycle or oxcart to four wheels, they want a vehicle that makes a statement about their success." Science now helps buyers make that state ment. At Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg, West Germany, computers not only aid car designers, they even pass judg ment on them. In VW's design laboratory I watched a technician use an electronic pen to draw a profile of an automobile on a display screen. Touching the pen to a critical point on the sleek hood, he then keyed in a request for verification. Was the design feasible? Vehicle strength and space requirements had been preprogrammed in the computer. The lines on the proposed hood rearranged themselves slightly as the computer seemed to say, "It may be a cute car, but it leaves no room for the engine we're using." At Stuttgart, Daimler-Benz engineers showed me how stresses and vibration can be detected by shooting laser beams at an engine block from two angles. How does auto fuel burn? At General Mo tors' massive technical center, a 330-acre re search campus for some 6,000 scientists, designers, and technicians, I saw lasers probing a flame. "Each kind of molecule in the fire gives the laser beam a different light frequency," explained research physicist James Bechtel. "So by sorting out the fre quencies on a spectrometer, we can tell what molecules are being burned, which ones are already burned, how hot they are, and what remains. When you know this, you can con trol emissions better." At Chrysler Proving Grounds west of Ann Arbor I climbed in a car with test driver and mechanic Mark Leidner, who drives alone for hours on the same closed loop of road. Following a list of printed instructions, we began a torture trip to nowhere. Through a corrosion trough of salt water, across two miles of gravel. Brake suddenly, honk the horn, roll the window down and up. A series of dips called the frame twister made the car creak and groan. Bumps simulating rail road ties drummed beneath us at 35 miles an hour. Over and over and over. "We had a driver once who loved it so much he skipped his breaks," said 32-year old Leidner. "In one year his mileage added Life in the slow lane is where it's atfor the lowriders. With the street their showroom, aficionadosof the largely Mexican-American cult promenade in low-slung, lavishly customized cars.