2015-12-24

SMoST: Wheels

If I had the kind of time I did in the old days, I would do an in-depth article about vehicle suspension and handling design uaing the Nemesis dune buggy as example / whipping boy that would constitute a primer of sorts, bringing together sci-fi nerdistry and gearheads / petrolheads.

The Argo buggy is in many ways a real throwback.  Before you assign that statement a level of obviousness with a rank of Captain or above, consider it beyond the mere notion of a dune buggy on Star Trek, or a modern-speed dune buggy with such a huge, obvious engine compartment in the same movie as a lapel-pin transporter device, or the floppy phaser cannon, or the lack of enclosed crew cabin or even windshield, necessitating safety glasses for probably the first time in Trek.



See, the notion of Starfleet designers working out camber, toe, offset, kingpin, Ackermann angles and duranium tie rods, and so on isn't necessarily beyond the pale . . . any designer of any wheeled anything will hit that stuff eventually, and wheels aren't going to become obsolete just because antigravs exist.  After all, while keeping contact with the ground brings challenges, there's nothing yet like having it when it comes to braking and steering.  Just try driving a hovercraft.

But the use of coils and shock-absorbing struts as clearly visible on the buggy, and arguably even the mechanical linkages as seen altogether, is quite old-fashioned.  The thing about suspension setups now is that it is a set-and-forget system, as it were . . . other than supercars with different mode selections (and even including those, really), most vehicles are configured a certain way and that's it.  Smooth level road driving, crowned road driving, off-road, rain/snow/ice . . . you're going to war with the suspension configuration you have, mechanically "programmed" by your vehicle designer and mechanic.

One can readily imagine a 'floating' architecture at each wheel that allows for on-the-fly adjustments to camber, Ackermann, and so on, enabling a level of adaptability and load balancing when cornering that the buggy clearly lacked, all without sway bars of a certain rigidity and other modern ways of dealing with the issues.  Rapid tire inflation changes (or the moon-rover mesh tire equivalent) could be useful dealing with bumps and such.  A system could exist that gives the benefits of a modern firm suspension while keeping much superior road contact.  You'd need CGI to show it on screen, and it might look funny to have tires keeping contact as if shooting back downward right after a pothole shot the wheel up into the fender, but that's what sci-fi requires sometimes.  If you can't show it, say it, and move on.

The only advantage to certain old-fashioned systems is robust reliability.  A Ford Model T engine might not generate a lot of power or be supremely efficient . . . you can pretty much forget variable valve timing or ECM control of fuel-air mixture or 600 horses . . . but you also have an engine that is dead simple, light enough to disassemble and repair easily enough with basic tools, and, perhaps more importantly, doesn't even require a water pump for cooling.  And instead of a starter motor or even a rolling start of a manual transmission (good luck with an automatic), you can crank it by hand.

Even having a driver at all may seem a throwback in years to come if the self-driving car revolution happens as some want.  And yet, gizmos can fail, be it self-driving whatzits or high-tech suspensions, and you don't want them failing at 60 miles per hour on rough terrain.  Further, designing a system with new metallurgy but with the same old design can be badass . . . imagine a '65 Mustang frame's rigidity if you made it in tritanium to the same thicknesses.  But considering it still takes an antigrav-equipped shuttle to deploy the thing, and that it is an open-cab design (meaning the occupants are exposed to whatever elements would make high-falutin' gizmos fail), there are limits to how far we can excuse the buggy's throwbacks.

All in all, it was, as we already knew, one of Trek's most embarrassing mistakes.



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