For Nina Tortosa, an engineer on the aerodynamic development team for the Chevrolet Volt, the 2011 North American International Auto Show Car of the Year, finally seeing the vehicle on road is exciting. “It’s been a fun group of engineers and designers to work with. Being a part of the next evolution of the automobiles is, of course, also very exciting and I’m very fortunate to have been able to help bring it to market,” said Tortosa.
That says a lot considering that the 36-year-old Tortosa, who was born in Barcelona, Spain, and raised in Minneapolis, dreamt of being an astronaut after watching the first U.S. Space Shuttle launch on TV when she was 8. After attending space camp twice in her youth, Nina began her college career as an astro-physics major. Now, Tortosa uses that same enthusiasm on the Voltec team perfecting the aerodynamics of the Volt. Most of Tortosa’s time working on the car is spent in the wind tunnel, a special facility to test vehicle aerodynamics.
Tortosa, who has both a bachelor’s and master’s from the University of Minnesota in Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics and is a member the USCAR Aerodynamics Working Group, started working on the Volt project well before it was even the Volt.
“I started doing some preliminary ‘what if’ computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis to see how much flow we might need fo r an electric vehicle,” she said. “From there things kept rolling and before I knew it a car called the Volt was on display at the Detroit 2007 Auto Show is what I was working on. Having been cross-trained in both CFD and wind tunnel testing when the work transitioned from CFD studies to wind tunnel testing, I just kept going.” Tortosa also worked on the aerodynamics expertise to many vehicles including the Pontiac Solstice, Buick LaCrosse and Buick Rainier.
Her work on the Volt consists of coordinating with designers and engineers to create the most aerodynamic vehicle possible without compromising the exterior styling.
“We spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel squeaking out every last bit of drag. From the very beginning the design team and I went through several design iterations,” said Tortosa. “They would develop a surface and I would test it in the wind tunnel. While in the wind tunnel I’d suggest changes to reduce drag, and after the test the clay model would get scanned and the design team would take the learning and spin it into a new surface which I would again test. It’s an interactive process.”
One of the biggest challenges, said Tortosa, was working to make sure that the styling of the car wasn’t compromised for the aerodynamic requirements needed to ensure the longest EV range.
“It would take not just an aerodynamic exterior surface, but also a lot of unseen parts optimized for drag to meet the requirements,” she said. “The large airdam, for example, is the single biggest aerodynamic enabler, but it’s low and sometimes scrapes on the ground. When in extended range mode, 50 miles of that range come from the aerodynamic improvements.”
Tortosa said one of the things she likes most about the Volt is how it changes the idea of transportation and environmental responsibility.
“I love driving, but I also like conserving our natural resources so to be able to work on a car that doesn’t need to use gas is kind of the best of both worlds,” she said.