You are looking at posts that were written in the month of September in the year 2009.
Five months ago I posted a photo on flickr of a SMART car.
I remember seeing these little jewels on a trip to Europe as a teen, where they left a lasting impression on a young American. Would you look at that! Cars don’t have to weigh two tons! And these suckers can “parallel park” with their nose to the curb! I posted this shot because I’m very excited that they finally made it to America. I didn’t expect anything from the comments, but the first one, from my friend Atoosa, caught me off guard.
“My cousin Neda is a paramedic and she calls these ’smartcoffins’ because she’s pulled so many dead people out of them. Basically she says in a collision, this is a little plastic deathpod.”
“That’s unfortunate. But understandable, considering how overweight American cars are. If everyone drove a SMART, I’m sure the story would be different,” I replied. While the SMART car is perfect for the tiny streets and low speeds of European city driving, I now see what a frightening proposition it is to take these things out onto the highway to slice and dice with SUVs and pickups at 70mph. I went on to post links to crash test videos of the little Mercedes/SWATCH “deathpod,” and an article on SMART safety, that indicates this city car wasn’t really intended for highway driving. On the other hand, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety praises the car’s low-speed (40mph or so) crash safety in the official crash test video with commentary. I finished my flickr comment by saying, “It’s much safer than a motorcycle,” to which Atoosa replied, “My dear G, ’safer than a motorcycle’ is hardly a reassuring recommendation.”
Fast forward to present day. I got an email from my brother-in-law (happy birthday, Dan!) about Volkswagen’s L1, a 170-mpg, tandem-seat-layout, carbon fiber monocoque concept that’s been around since 2002 and whose original prototype famously drove 100 kilometers on one liter of fuel.
They’ve updated the design of the new prototype with a diesel engine and a more production-ready design, hence the buzz. VDUB claims it will bring this beauty to market in 2013, but I told Dan I was skeptical. I love VW; Lorenia and I just purchased a Jetta and a GTI. But I admit I’d be surprised to see the L1 make it through to production. If it does, though, I’d buy a 2013 model. In 2018. In the meantime, there’s the glorious Aptera…if it ever makes it out of California.
I cracked up when in the comments on WIRED’s article about the L1, someone said, “Who’s going to be the first to comment on how the vehicle will fare in a collison with a semi? Somebody always does.”
Indeed, Atoosa made the semi comment five months ago. “And yes, they do pass all crash tests or they wouldn’t be allowed on the road, if they hit an SUV — or even worse, an 18 wheeler, the tiny car goes bouncing like a skipping stone. Remember the video with the concrete wall only demonstrates the effects of the momentum of the SMART car itself. What would the impulse transfer be like if it hit an 18 wheeler going 70 mph?”
And that brings us to the purpose of this entry, which is to post my little flickr manifesto from April. I made the following reply.
“True. It’s not as reassuring as, say, a new Volvo. I’d just like to point out that even SUVs are no match for 18 wheelers, so that argument against SMARTs is moot. Knowing that a big truck would pulverize your Celica doesn’t stop you from driving it. These are the choices that the individual driver has to make when we’re forced into car ownership by the societal status quo of a sprawled America devoid of intelligent urban design or the individual will to pay for such design through taxes that contribute to hard-to-measure quality of life benefits.
Bike vs. car is an even worse proposition than SMART vs. SUV, but that doesn’t stop me from riding my bike. Long story short, European-style, high density cities powered by renewable energy and with centers that exclude motorized traffic and emphasize pedestrians and bicycles are the way forward. Ultimately, the safety of a car is relative, and for most people cost, fuel efficiency, performance, utility and looks are all more important, since fatal crashes are relatively rare (42,000 vehicular deaths per year in the US versus 300 million inhabitants, or 0.00014% — 14 in 100,000).
Furthermore, almost no one considers the cost to the earth in terms of the materials and energy that go into producing a new car, which is why most don’t recognize that the greenest cars on the road will always be the pre-owned models: their environmental production cost has already been paid. No matter how efficient a 100% electric Tesla is, it can’t match the alternative: not gathering the materials and energy to build a new Tesla, and continuing to repair and drive what you have. Or better yet: selling your car and purchasing the nicest bike money can buy.
Fatal accidents in which you as the driver have no fault are exceedingly rare, on the order of acts of God. The majority of accidents can be avoided by paying closer attention to the task of driving and using defensive driving techniques, especially leaving enough distance between yourself and the car ahead. The unavoidable accidents, rare as they are, are not going to convince me to drive an SUV instead of a SMART, especially when the smaller, lighter car is more nimble and thus better at avoiding an accident. I’d rather die while trying to minimize my carbon footprint than survive crashes to burn another dinosaur another day. We can’t avoid it when it’s our time to go. What matters is how we treat others and our global life support system until we do.
Atoosa replied, “Very well put, my friend. That was like a blogpost unto itself. We keep fixing up our old Toyotas and riding our bikes when we can, but hopefully we won’t be pulverized, but will live to see the day when society around the world is built to minimize the human footprint on our planet.”
How strange, then, that both my 1992 Toyota Camry and her mid-nineties Toyota Celica would die last month. After an extensive search and over twenty test drives, Atoosa finally purchased a Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Notwithstanding the repair nightmares of being an early adopter, I’m very excited about her car. But I’m equally excited that after my own protracted search for four-cylinder standard-shift cars, I found the fastest car I’ve ever owned: a 2003 VW GTI 1.8T.
That’s right, GDUB has a VDUB. One that goes to 70 in second gear and still gets 30mpg, thanks to the turbo. Not as flashy as the L1, and I’m working on a few repairs to problems the dealer failed to mention, but I’m thrilled. Living in a “city” where cyclists have glass bottles thrown at them and working at a job whose security gate is six miles from the office and bans bikes during rush hour may force me into car ownership, but if I must drive, at least I can have a car that’s responsible, affordable and faster than a scalded dog.