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The New Boeing 747-8: Accelerating Technology?

How revolutionary are the improvements made possible by advanced simulation software, by collaborative Web-based aircraft development, and other new technology? The new Boeing 747-8 is a case in point.

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The Seattle Times is justifiably proud of  the most striking redesign of the aircraft line in the 747's history, with a nod to its heritage:

This latest model of the iconic jumbo jet, whose first version flew in 1969, has an extended forward fuselage hump with a row of windows that stretches all the way back to the wings.

The rival Airbus A380 superjumbo airliner, with its full-length double-decker passenger cabin, has a regular, more nondescript fuselage shape. But the curve of the 747-8 upper fuselage hump will be distinctive even to people unfamiliar with airplane types.

What's really new is extended software control of the many originally mechanical functions, as Jason Paur reports in Wired:

During normal flight the flight control system will automatically cancel out any type of vibration that begins without the pilot ever knowing it is happening. Similar fly-by-wire software fixes are used in many aircraft. In the original 747, which had all mechanical connections, the fix would have required an aerodynamic or structural change.

And Boeing summarizes the advance from the 747-400 and its view of its advantages over the competing Airbus A380:

Using 787-technology engines, the airplane will be quieter, produce lower emissions, and achieve better fuel economy than any competing jetliner. The 747 Intercontinental will provide nearly equivalent trip costs and 13 percent lower seat-mile costs than the 747-400, plus 26 percent greater cargo volume. Operating economics will offer a significant improvement over the A380. The 747-8 is more than 10 percent lighter per seat than the A380 and will consume 11 percent less fuel per passenger than the 555-seat airplane. That translates into a trip-cost reduction of 21 percent and a seat-mile cost reduction of more than 6 percent, compared to the A380.

This all lends support to the view that change is accelerating. For example, fuel economy has increased by 16 percent, versus 4 percent for the last version, the 747-400. And LED lighting further helps make the plane the greenest widebody jet yet, if that's not an oxymoron.

On the other hand, as I noted in a review of David Edgerton's skeptical Shock of the Old, energy use by the 747 had already been cut in half. The further improvement, while welcome, is not dramatic. And it raises the Jevons paradox, itself almost 150 years old and recently revived by David Owen: people may fly more as efficiency improves.

It's no criticism of the great engineering behind the 747-8, evident in the almost trouble-free early tests, to say that it just doesn't have the same cultural or economic impact as the origin of the species 40-plus years ago. (A stapler, still widely marketed, was even named in its honor.) There's still no radically iconic design, like a viable supersonic passenger plane, close to production. So even a great achievement shows the limits of our progress.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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