What are those weird patterns on prototype cars?

Seemingly modern camouflage technique more than 100 years old

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Chevrolet Volt Chief Engineer Andrew Farah with a 2016 Volt prototype (Photo by Chris Guddeck for Chevrolet)

DETROIT - Living in southeast Michigan, you've certainly at some point seen an automobile wrapped in what appears to be a vinyl vorticism or cubism design pattern.

What you're seeing is likely a prototype of a new car from one of the Big Three out on the road, either being tested in real-world scenarios or being being driven to a testing location, such as General Motors' proving grounds in Milford

What is it?

The crazy patterns are used to hide potential changes in the car's design. Sometimes the patterns cover the entire car and sometimes it only covers the parts of the vehicle that are getting changed. It's called "dazzle camouflage."

Dazzle camouflage began during World War I and was even used in World War II U.S. and British military. Rather than hiding the subject, it was intended to mislead enemies about the size, course and speed of the vehicles. If the intended course is different from how the ship appears to travel, the Central or Axis soldiers could place themselves in disadvantageous positions or even fire on the wrong area, giving their location away.

Modern automobile prototypes have the patterns printed on a strong, lightweight polyester adhered to the exterior of the vehicle. The patterns are typically white, black and gray, which hides and adds shadows, obscuring the design elements of the vehicle. 

The contrasting patterns also have the added benefit today to both make it difficult for smart phone cameras to focus as well as throw off infa-red cameras. Recent studies show swirls hide design changes better than lines, as they are also easier to align when changes do occur.

Dazzle camouflage has been such an important part of hiding the changes in design when testing that car companies even employ camouflage engineers to custom design patterns to optimally hide the vehicle in tandem with the car.

“Each car is unique. We are like a dressmaker, and the car is our model,” GM camouflage engineer Lionel Perkins said. “No two models are the same. We need to make the right dress that fits the body we are dealing with.”

It also looks cool and brings attention to the brand.

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