By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Observe the passenger cars on a typical road in America and count those with one person inside, the driver. A small child, a little old lady, or a dog may be sitting next to the driver or on the back seat that you may miss—that’s not important to my argument as we shall see; include these cars also in your count. Today many cars are pickups or sport utility vehicles used as passenger cars—include these cars in your count also. I am willing to bet, you shall find your count of cars with just one person inside is more than 90% of the cars going by. With planetary warming and high petroleum prices from unstable oil producers such as Iran, Iraq, Russia, Nigeria, and Venezuela, isn’t it time our solo drivers move their rear ends into a personal car?
Does any automaker make a personal car, a PC for the road, that’s safe, economical, and reliable?
You might think now of Honda Civic, Daimler Smart Car, or Toyota Yaris. Think again. These three cars and some other minis are given high ratings for safety by authorities, within the class of subcompacts. Ah, there’s the rub in the underlined words. How would you fare in your mini car colliding with a Chevrolet Suburban? Even if you survive, your mini would be totaled and that would not be economical. I propose that we set aside our gas guzzling trucks for truckers and our big sedans for family driving; instead let’s design a PC which meets high safety requirements.
Our revolutionary principles of designing a safe PC would be less needed, if we would design our population centers more rationally.
Our big cities have grown into huge agglomerations of buildings, often spreading over vast surface areas of the earth, eating up valuable farmland. Instead, developers should have been encouraged and supported to build housing, factories, offices, and shops in smaller clusters over poor land, using all three dimensions about equally. In such cities transportation could be on foot, bicycle, and non-polluting mass transit. People would use automobiles, as well as fast trains and air transport, to travel between urban clusters over farmland, parks, forests, and wilderness preserves. For such a development of cities, strict federal zoning laws would have to be applied.
We are not there yet in urban planning—hence the need for a safe PC to deal with our current transportation mess: traffic and parking jams, air pollution, wasting of energy, property damage, and death on the roads. We may put together our formidable PC on an old platform from a discarded VW bug, or wrap the design around a new subcompact. Let us just throw out some of the junk in our garage and we are likely to find room to put together this project.
We shall pose some fundamental needs for the personal driver and abide by scientific principles of design, setting aside current fashions of style and marketing for now.
We have already stated the primary need for the safety of the driver and the secondary need of protecting the vehicle from damage. Consider current bumpers: they are painted and lack sufficient strength, being plastic without strong shock absorbers. When people are parking today’s cars, these stylish bumpers get scratched and bent easily. This situation has given rise to a sizable industry in bumper repair and repainting. I recently spent $500 repainting my bumpers, which were promptly scratched again.
Of much greater concern is possible injury to the driver. In choosing a car I put a weight of 75% to safety, 20% to reliability, and 5% to economy, luxury, and styling.
I value thrift and luxury, but what good are these to me if my life ends on the road? Reliability, yes, I want reliability very much next to safety so I can get to my work on time. Styling is nice for impressing people and personal pleasure, but modern automobiles, like telephones and appliances, are loaded with automatic features: window openers, self-adjusting seats, etc., that help sell them to a naive public. These features are useful to salespersons in unloading merchandise at high prices, but they contribute to cost and failures. Every device not essential to movement and safety is something which will require repair down the road. As the engineers add components to a system, the failure rate rises exponentially.
Engineers know about the problems of complexity, but they are directed by managers, sales executives, and bottom-line financial people. Left alone to design, they would go for integration ruled by simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. Let us design so.
The imperative of safety leads us to structures which are naturally strong. We look for a way to enclose our driver in a shape that can withstand impacts. Since our PC is to be very small, the general shape of a seated human would be fitting. We can consider but reject a standing driver (good for visibility and alertness, too much height) or a prone one (restful and close to the ground, leading to lethargy). A spherical or an oval (egg) shape would work. We opt for the egg for two reasons. First, an egg, with the pointed end forward, would be more aerodynamic. Second, in a front-end or rear-end collision, the egg would hold up better. Of course to match road surfaces, the egg has a flat oval on the bottom.
Now, in a collision the energy needs to be absorbed and dissipated to lessen damage. The Mercedes and the Volvo are designed to do just that by allowing the collapse of the car body ahead or behind the driver. The car is totaled, but the people inside are not. Some years back my wife demolished our Mercedes on the highway North of Fresno, California; she and my young daughter escaped with much shock and no hurts otherwise. A collapsing car body is less helpful for the riders in a side collision.
In a side impact, our egg-shaped PC would absorb the damage, not hurting our sole rider in the center of the vehicle.
I see our PC as an egg within an egg.
The inside egg is a shell of tough, impact resistant plastic, clear at the driver’s waist level, bolted on a flat oval metal platform, with headlights, backlights, side lights, mirrors, and two doors. The seat, steering column, motors, drive trains, fluid reservoirs, and wheels are attached to the metal platform. The outside egg is a framework of tubular roll bars, rising from shock absorbers on the sides of the platform like the ribs of a whale, fully enclosing the inner egg. The ribs are spaced widely enough in front, back, and sides for good visibility and access to the interior. They meet at the top again with shock absorbers attached to a rounded oval ridge.
The thickness of the roll bars will depend on the availability and cost of strong, light weight composite materials, such as used in fancy bicycles or Boeing’s Dreamliner. This issue will require testing, but we’ll assume a four-inch thickness for the roll bars, and they should be enclosed in rubber where they serve as bumpers.
Roll bars should be left unpainted, but we may apply paint to the inner egg’s lower portion.
The rib structure, a framework of roll bars all around, will absorb and repel smaller impacts, but will partially collapse absorbing energy in a larger collision. An oval bumper wraps around the lower portion of the cage, bolted to the roll bars. Bars go half way up in front of the vehicle and behind it, bolted to horizontal bars below eye level. In a powerful confrontation with a larger vehicle, our egg will turn over and roll, dissipating energy in friction with the road or other objects. The driver will be well protected in the cabin; the PC will suffer less damage to its valuable innards than conventional cars.
Damage to the rib cage of the PC will be easily and inexpensively repaired, because each bar is segmented, articulated with bolts allowing partial collapse in a collision, but holding together in a major crash, because the car goes into a roll. The cage is six feet in width and 9 feet in length–these are the proportions of an average egg, designed by evolution to be light and strong. The height would be six feet also if it were not for the flat ovals on top and bottom.
The height of the cabin is six feet, less the thickness of the roll bars, with the driver’s seat close to the floor and backrest titled back. The width of the inner egg is also almost six feet and the length nine feet. There are two ample bucket seats with seat belts and hanging helmets with neck brace from the ceiling that can be lowered on the head. There is room for a briefcase or toolbox back of the seats for groceries or other small packages. Larger packages can be mounted outside on top of the roof ridge oval.
The width of the PC is substantially larger than in today’s small cars. Wheels outside the cage, together with the weight of batteries and generators to be explained shortly, below the floor of the cabin, give our car great stability and safety. The rider and passenger are separated from the outside of the vehicle by the thickness of the roll bars and empty space in all directions for safety from intrusions into the cage during a crash.
We have designed a small and light-weight, but very safe, personal automobile. Rough schematics follow.
We now address the problem of how to power this vehicle. Gasoline is expensive, explosive, and excremental. The ideal source of power is an array of recyclable batteries to operate four small motors, one for each wheel. With four motors we eliminate the need for power train transmission, and easily allow for independent steering of each wheel under computer control.
Further, to save energy, we reverse the electric motors, turning them into generators to charge the batteries, when we want to slow down the car during breaking or going downhill. As a result, the energy of breaking, normally lost as heat on the break pads, and the potential energy of elevation are converted to electric charge. As an option, solar collectors can be mounted on the roof of the PC, providing extra charging for the batteries when sunshine is available.
Solar collectors are cool. An electric engine is cool and noiseless. Any automotive engineer will tell you the heat of gasoline engines damages equipment, requiring extensive cooling devices with oil, water, or air. Our electric power eliminates the need for most such devices, allowing only a small heat pump for cooling and heating in the cabin. The starter is a simple electric switch.
Slowing down with generators is noiseless also, and spares the break pads, tires, and calipers. Equipped this way, our personal car will not mess up the environment with harmful exhausts, eliminating the need for expensive pollution controls. Quiet operation will bring calm to our streets. Rubber particles from tires will be greatly reduced in our air. There will be fewer oil spills, because of the reduced use of oil in our PC transmissions and motors.
Who does not want clean and cool air for our children and a world with less noise? Let us make personal cars our standard for commuting, together with mass transit systems, burying the internal combustion engine worldwide, as it was done in the sixties by students in Berkeley, California, but without giving up our individual freedoms to collectives.