In two recent television commercials, Volkswagen compares the strength and spaciousness of its geodesic New Beetle to a Roman arch and a domed sports arena. These structures are benchmarks of civil engineering, but do they translate into efficient automotive design, as Volkswagen claims?
The answer: Yes and no. Arches distribute weight along their entire surface, which allows them to maintain structural integrity under great pressure, explains Bryon Fitzpatrick of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. (Of course, New Beetles aren't exactly prone to rollovers.)
Spaciousness is another matter. According to Bumsuk Lim, a professor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, the New Beetle's "cathedral ceiling" is largely aesthetic because it creates extra headroom between the front and rear passengers—where you need it least.
"Unless you're trying to stand up in the car," says Lim, "the dome isn't that useful."
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.