Driving smart

Posted on September 18th, 2009 by george.
Categories: automotive, coincidence, environment, friends, fun, society, technology, travel.

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.


And, if we’re lucky, the US will get the zippy new Fiat 500 in 2010 or 2011.


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.



Comment on September 26th, 2009.

Loved the whole blog post….especially the last two words. LOL! Words of Dad! P.S. Words of Mom…”you be careful driving that “scalded dog” now, ya hear? I love you.”


Comment on September 27th, 2009.

I, too, was amused by the last line. :D Car entries make me drool. I want that L1!!!


Comment on September 27th, 2009.

Mom, thanks! Don’t fret, I don’t take unnecessary risks.

Thanks, babe, me too! I realized after I wrote it that I would be happy with any of the cars in the pictures.


Comment on October 21st, 2009.

Love it GDUB! Buy a 2013… in 2018. rock on. Love the new VDUB (my parents both have VDUBs and love ‘em)!
Also think you should mention the SUV’s tendencies to flip. I went from 16 to 26 without an accident and then my first SUV had a tie rod failure at 65mph in the middle of winter on a busy rush hour highway and totaled the truck. I’m never buying an SUV again (and only got it because I needed to haul my drums and other band equipment and members).


Comment on October 21st, 2009.

Brian, thanks for the comment! Always good to hear from fellow dubbers. Yeah, I’ve spent quite enough time bashing SUVs since their rise in the 90s. I’m glad to finally witness the decline I’ve long predicted. Even happier that the void left by the big trucks is being filled by gas sippers. Maybe this time efficiency will finally take hold. Glad you survived your SUV accident!


Comment on October 21st, 2009.

for 2018, you could also consider the much hyped but still expensive tesla. teslamotors.com

came here from your comment on another blog. basically, you fascinate me.


Comment on October 21st, 2009.

ok nevermind, i was irresponsible earlier and didn’t read the entire post or the tesla mention.

but now i engage and ask, don’t electrics still come from some burning of fossil fuels elsewhere? co2 at the powerplant instead of the tailpipe is only mildly comforting.


Comment on October 21st, 2009.

Ahsen, great to see you here! Thanks for the compliment.

When it comes to energy production with fossil fuels, centralization increases efficiency. The massive turbines and generators in power plants far outstrip the collective efficiency of 300 million internal combustion engines. If every car in the US were magically converted to batteries (without the massive material cost of creating said batteries) we would experience a HUGE net decrease in energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions. Even if every Joule of electricity were created through the burning of coal, there would still be fewer greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. It’s not an even trade, and it’s certainly no argument for keeping internal combustion engines. Maintain electricity generation just as it is now, convert all cars to electric, and we would experience a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions per mile, and a 99% reduction in NOx emissions, nationwide.


It’s easy to show that batteries are a bridge to a cleaner future, even if it takes us decades to generate all our electricity from renewable resources. And just to skip to the end, solar is the ultimate answer. Not that a diversified energy profile won’t benefit us all, and that there aren’t niches for geothermal, wind, tidal, wave, and hydroelectric. But the majority of our needs will eventually be met by the giant thermonuclear fusion furnace 98 million miles from us.


Comment on October 22nd, 2009.

cool, thanks for such a nice response. i agree and am onboard about this being a step towards something better. however, the effeciency argument still leaves me a bit unsure. something seems too fluffy about it. coal and battery (and even nuclear) technologies still seem to have a way to go to be truly practical.
found this to share…

btw, there is a honda hybrid sportscar on yahoo frontpage today: http://autos.yahoo.com/articles/autos_content_landing_pages/1150/2011-honda-cr-z/


Comment on October 22nd, 2009.

I’m an engineer, so I’m not shy about wanting to see the numbers. I read the Reuters article, and didn’t see one fact: just opinion. There are points made, for sure, but I mentioned material costs to create batteries above. I really think those costs are balanced by the simplicity of an electric motor vs. an ICE. Think about it: an electric car uses no motor oil, no transmission fluid. Hybrids are a bridge, and I see a future made of all kinds of propulsion methods (most important to me? human legs), but the bottom line is efficiency.

As for energy production, power plants increase in efficiency as time goes by, while ICEs get dirtier, since the vast majority of people don’t maintain their exhaust systems.

Arguments about practicality often overlook the fact that the propulsion method that uses reciprocating masses to contain several thousand explosions per minute has had over a century to mature, be refined, and make use of economies of scale. We can’t argue against EVs just because they’re infants. All new technologies necessarily have an expensive period before massive acceptance and subsequent price drop.

I claim to be all about the numbers, so here they are, just to clear the air:


A very edifying read, and the numbers are plain.

Thanks for the link to the CR-Z! I’m glad they’re bringing it to production. I wasn’t sure it would make it past prototype.


Comment on October 22nd, 2009.

Also: I don’t want to demonize fossil fuels. We were unaware during the better part the 19th and 20th century that they would have any macroscopic effect on the planet. Of course, I don’t think anyone foresaw, even the most ambitious auto exec, the use of billions of cars worldwide. Naive, sure, but no one created the automobile to harm the planet; Henry Ford just wanted to turn a profit by getting people from point A to B faster and easier. It worked, and the car has played an enormous role in shaping our society. I want to formally recognize the importance of that role. Internal combustion engines were necessary for us to reach the heights we enjoy today. But when we realize that something we’re doing is beneficial and deleterious at the same time, and we have an alternative that may require short term sacrifices but in the long term satisfies our transportation needs while reducing the negative impacts on our only life support system, it’s time to suck it up and make the change. It will necessarily be gradual. We cannot wave a magic wand and make every car fly and run on water. But we can start taking steps.

Beyond cars, I want to take steps to PLAN the growth of our cities (because by God they are gonna GROW this century) so as to make cars obsolete. I want to walk or ride my bike everywhere without risking death by inattentive motorist, take a train to travel regionally, and fly on algal fuels to travel internationally. But that’s just my little dream.


Comment on October 23rd, 2009.

well then george, i def share this dream with you and hope for the same kind of future. my point was not to shoot down these newer innovations, but just question how far along we are. of course there are several proponents putting out persuasive literature and other communications. but its early stage and still not definitive. even in the link you just sent, table 1 shows that ev’s in the us would reduce hc,co,and no at powerplants but still increase so’s by 200% and overall particulate pollution by power plants would increase by over 100%. the rest of the tables don’t consider the hidden power plant pollution (or other hidden damages) when comparing efficiencies.

but don’t let me be a debbie downer! its typically my nature to get distracted, especially when thinking about how to get from a to z while we are still starting at a to b. i believe these are the right next steps to take and i definitely am looking at efficiency when i buy my next car. kudos to you for furthering the cause!

below is the press release about the report the reuters article was discussing.

executive summary of report here: http://www.nap.edu/nap-cgi/report.cgi?record_id=12794&type=pdfxsum


Comment on October 24th, 2009.

I figured we were on the same page, and I appreciate you taking a skeptical look at the changes people are proposing. It’s true that promises are often pie-in-the-sky. I tend to come down on the side of innovation and positive change because I want to see at least _something_ done. Often it feels like we never even see point B because we spend so much time arguing over how to get there.

You are correct to point out the net increase in nitrous oxides, but keep in mind that’s if there is no change in electricity generation. The emissions benefits outweigh the disadvantages even if we don’t change the way we burn coal. My case is this: we should ALREADY be capturing and sequestering the byproducts of coal-sourced electricity. That should be done regardless of what we do about cars. But because power plants are not part of our everyday experience, I find it necessary to continue to bring it up. Polluters benefit from their activities being out of sight. There are costs associated with cleaning up our act; my contention is that the monetary cost of cleaning up and then replacing coal and other unsustainable energy sources with solar, wind, etc. is minute compared to the health and environmental cost of the status quo.

I am willing to pay more for electricity to make this happen. I demonstrated this by volunteering to pay an extra $10 per month for over a year to the Florida Power and Light company to subsidize their efforts to install solar power plants. After all, we are the Sunshine State. Scandal erupted when those funds were used for advertising rather than concrete solar projects, and the program was discontinued. Now we’re back to fossil fuels, and no one seems to care enough to do anything about it on a large scale. That said, the Kennedy Space Center is installing a 10MW solar facility on government land as we type. Unfortunately, it will only provide for a fraction of the space center’s usage. But it’s a start.


I have a dream of saving up $15,000 and taking our house off the grid. I’ll keep you posted on that. =P


Comment on October 27th, 2009.

All good ideas George. Thank you for humoring me. My fee will be 15k once you save it up.

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