In an industry where today’s product is already out of date, the work of automotive engineers is to make tomorrow a reality. Every automotive company is hungry for the best new recruits to keep the development treadmill turning. To do this they must inspire the younger generation to take up their spanners and get their hands dirty in the oily world of engineering. However, with many of the grand engineering projects fading into history, youngsters are instead looking to the service industries for their shortcut to wealth and respect. The Bloodhound SSC team is looking to reverse that trend. Not just a rocket-powered attempt to take the land speed record to 1,000mph (1,609kph), Bloodhound SSC also hopes to rekindle the romance of engineering in the hearts of a new generation of potential automotive engineers.
It takes considerable engineering talent to keep new cars at the leading edge of technology. At current rates of exchange, OICA estimates that over US$100bn is spent each year on research, development and production facilities. The British government’s latest survey of international R&D spending shows that Japan is the leading investor, committing around US$30bn in 2009 with Germany following at a distance with US$26bn.
Not just a rocket-powered attempt to take the landspeed record to 1,000mph, Bloodhound SSC also hopes to rekindle the romance of engineering in the hearts of a new generation of potential automotive engineers.
For the rest, they must punch above their weight by attracting the brightest talent at the lowest cost. Fortunately, the British car industry has transmogrified into a new form, and made rich outsiders foot the bill. According to the UK’s Advanced Institute of Management Research, there are around 4,500 firms involved in the UK’s motorsport sector, employing up to 25,000 elite engineers. Turnover is in the region of £6bn (US$9.35bn), with over £3.6bn being earned in exports. In 2009, Formula Money estimates that the McLaren F1 team could call on around US$480m, the majority of which was sourced from foreign sponsors. The trickle down of technology from such heights to family cars is negligible, but it does act as a rallying call for aspiring engineers who then join the wider industry.
The trickle down of technology from such heights to family cars is negligible, but it does act as a rallying call for aspiring engineers who then join the wider industry.
If the motor racing industry is a tributary of the mainstream industry, then the land speed record teams inhabit a mysterious backwater. Achievement of the highest speed accolade seems to have attracted the peculiar interest of British engineers most of all. Following a long tradition of record breakers, including 1997’s supersonic Thrust SSC, the Bloodhound SSC is planned to be the first 1,000mph car.
It builds on work started by Ron Ayres, designer of the BAC Bloodhound surface-to-air missile. Indeed, the SSC is surely more a projectile than a car. It does have four wheels, required for it to qualify as a car, but they are solid forged titanium able withstand a force of 50,000 times gravity at 10,000rpm. It also has a car engine; a racing Cosworth V8, but only as an auxiliary power unit. The real thrust comes from two other engines, a rocket and a jet, providing power and control.
If all this activity can put the glamour back into automotive engineering in Britain and elsewhere, then the 1,000mph car will be a mere sideshow.
Yet, the land speed record is only one motivation of the effort; the other is to glamorise engineering. Just as the space programme in the US resulted in a surge in the number of doctorates, in the UK inspiration to budding engineers was provided by projects like Concorde. The Bloodhound Education Programme has stepped into this role by forming technical partnerships with four universities and has welcomed nearly 4,000 schools into its virtual classroom activities.
There have already been tangible benefits. At one extreme there are primary and secondary school children discovering how mathematics and science can make dreams of the record attempt come true. University students are given access real data in order to solve genuine technological challenges while postgraduate students can gain their masters degree. In refining the aerodynamics of the car, Swansea University has been able to advance the esoteric art of fluid dynamics to world leading levels. If all this activity can put the glamour back into automotive engineering in Britain and elsewhere, then the 1,000mph car will be a mere sideshow.
Dr Michael Wynn-Williams is the author of Surfing the Global Tide: Automotive Giants and How to Survive Them. He lectures in international business at the University of Greenwich.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.