Need for Speed: New Series Explores World's Fastest Things

oracle racing yacht
The Oracle in the water. (Image credit: David Pogue)

From building the world's fastest cars, trucks and boats to rooting for Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt, humans are obsessed with speed.

In the premiere of the new NOVA series "Making Stuff," which airs tonight at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on PBS, host and technology columnist David Pogue takes viewers on a whirlwind tour of the world's fastest things.

In the show, Pogue burns rubber in a souped-up electric car, zooms from house to house delivering packages and flies above the waves on the sailboat that won this year's America's Cup.

Humanity's hunger for speed has many roots. "Sometimes, it's financial," and other times, it's prestige, Pogue said. "And the third factor is to dedicate less time to moving ourselves around," he told LiveScience. [Image Gallery: Breaking the Sound Barrier]

Water and wheels

What do sailboats and airplanes have in common? A lot, if you're talking about billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle yacht, which was built to sail in the America's Cup competition. In the new show, Pogue hitches a ride on the $100 million carbon-fiber vessel.

"It's the closest thing to a flying carpet," he said. Instead of a sail, the boat has a curved, vertical wing. Just as an airplane wing creates lift when air flows more quickly over the curved surface and creates a low-pressure zone, the sailboat's wing creates a pulling force as air whooshes past. In addition, the vessel has an underwater foil that lifts the boat up over the water to reduce drag.

Next, Pogue journeys to Southern Methodist University in Dallas to test out his sprinting chops. In the lab of physiologist Peter Weyand, researchers study the biomechanics of running and other sports. With the world's fastest treadmill, a multidimensional force sensor and top-of-the-line motion-capture video systems, Weyand and his colleagues study what makes people run fast. Surprisingly, fast runners aren't distinguished by their leg movements, Weyand said, but rather how hard they hit the ground. "Elite sprinters will hit with forces four to five times their body weight," he told LiveScience.

David Pogue running on treadmill as Peter Weyand looks on (Southern Methodist University) (Image credit: David Pogue)

Pogue's next stop is Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, where a team of speed enthusiasts is building the world's fastest bicycle. The bike is a "recumbent" style bike, because the rider is practically lying down, and has about half the wind resistance of a normal bike. It has an aerodynamic shell with no windows, and only a webcam for navigation. With a blistering top speed of 80 mph (129 km/h), it's the most efficient human-powered vehicle on the planet.

The 'White Zombie' (Image credit: David Pogue)

Of course, sometimes, human power isn't enough. In the world of muscle cars, it's all about acceleration. Pogue visits John "Plasma Boy" Wayland, maker of the "White Zombie" electric car. The car is a 1972 Datsun, but its gasoline engine has been swapped out for a lithium-battery-powered motor. "It looks beat up and pathetic," Pogue said, but "it's insanely fast." In fact, it's not so much fast, as quick. The little Datsun accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 1.8 seconds — more quickly than even the Bugatti Veyron, the fastest (but not quickest) car in the world.

"We've changed the image of the electric car," Wayland told LiveScience.

Saving time

But speed isn't always about traveling across a distance quickly. Sometimes, it's about doing something in the least amount of time.

What's the best way to deliver UPS packages? The show ponders this classic traveling-salesman problem: The delivery person must visit a certain number of houses in a day, in the least amount of time. UPS mathematicians have developed a delivery algorithm called ORION (On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation) that saves the company millions of dollars a year by reducing the number of miles each delivery truck must drive.

What's the fastest way to board an airplane? Pogue speaks to a couple of experts to find out. Simulations suggest that boarding from window to aisle seats works best, but others think random boarding would work just as well. Yet most airlines use neither.

But the greatest leaps in speed aren't in cars or postal deliveries, but in the Internet. Today, fiber-optic cables transmit signals at the speed of light — orders of magnitude faster than early dial-up connections. In the stock market, time is money, and traders rely on überfast fiber-optic links between New York and Chicago. The latest idea involves sending the data by a series of microwave towers, since electromagnetic signals travel even more quickly through air than along a fiber.

"In terms of physical vehicles, we've been pushing the envelope for many, many years," Pogue said. "But the speed of the Internet — we're just getting started."

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.