Replacing Cars with . . . Cars

venture-motorcycle-car-conceptRyan Avent has been arguing that cars are wasteful for their typical use but that, since walking, biking, and the like are impractical for most of our daily commutes, we need instead to come up with some sort of miniature car.

Even the smallest cars on the American market weigh a ton (a Mini clocks in at around 2,500 pounds, if I’m not mistaken). Even the smallest cars are two-seaters, and even the smallest engines can deliver top speeds near 100 mph. For many typical journeys, that’s just a lot more than what a driver needs. What about the potential for something weighing just a few hundred pounds, battery-powered with a range under 40 miles, perhaps a one-seater with room for groceries, and with a typical cruising speed of between 20 and 30 mph? Something like that could eventually retail for the price of a computer, would be far cheaper to run than a car, would be much more energy efficient, and would handle the basic job of getting a lot of people where they need to be. Imagine a future in which you hop in this vehicle which takes you the four miles to the nearest Metro station, drops you off, then travels to the grocery store to pick up the order you placed on your computer before you left, and finally returns to your home and plugs itself in.

First off, it’s hard to imagine that such a car would be cheaper or more efficient than our current cars.  Even the fanciest current model doesn’t have the ability to drive to the store and run errands.   Hell, the Batmobile can’t do that.  And, yet, we’re somehow going to do it for a few hundred bucks?  You can’t get a motorcycle for that.

Second, it’s just impractical.   Sure, for a typical commute, the ability to drive at Interstate speeds and carry multiple passengers and their gear is extraneous capacity.  But many if not most of us need that capacity on the weekends, if not more frequently.   So, either we have more car than we need much of the time or we need multiple cars.   Not only would we have to pay for these extra cars but we’d have to insure, maintain, and park them.  How efficient is that?  Indeed, just the parking issue alone would be a deal breaker for most people.

Third, the single-user concept removes the flexibility that comes with driving.  While it’s admittedly infrequent, there are occasions when I’ll have to unexpectedly transport a colleague somewhere or stop off and pick up my wife.  Having a second seat is handy in these circumstances.  For that matter, I more frequently need to take an unexpected trip during the day.  It would be decidedly inconvenient to have the car off running errands or charging itself 45 minutes away.

Fourth, if we had the technological know-how to create these super-cheap, super-efficient, super-automated cars we could apply it to our regular cars.   While it wouldn’t be as efficient as having us stuck in individual-sized, incredibly pokey, self-driving vehicles it would mean greater fuel efficiency, better accident avoidance, and safer and smoother interactions with the surrounding traffic.   Why, we could just put the cars on auto-pilot and catch up on our reading whilst being chauffeured to work.

UPDATE
:  In related news, WSJ’s Joseph White asks, “Can Drivers Handle High-Tech Cars?”  He notes that such developments as keyless ignition, electronic brakes, and electronic throttles have changed the way cars operate and may be unsafe when driven by people habituated to old-style systems.  He concludes:

Further, vehicle standards alone can’t guarantee there won’t be another round of anxiety over “drive by wire” electronic vehicle technology. That’s because there are people involved. Your next car may not turn on, brake or shift anything like the cars you’ve owned before, especially if it’s a hybrid.

Airline pilots get retrained and certified every time they move from one type of plane to another so that they can safely operate the sophisticated electronic controls in modern aircraft. Motorists expect to jump in and out of cars with minimal instruction and a cursory skim of the owner’s manual. The pairing of high-tech machines and low-tech drivers could be troublesome for years to come.

It’s an interesting point.  Obviously, we want cars to continue to improve and all or most of these changes likely make cars safer in the aggregate.  But the human factor should never be discounted.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. PD Shaw says:

    Vehicles like this were built after the 70s/80s oil shocks, and then when the price of gas dropped, manufacture stopped. There is one, I think its a French manufacture, that I often see around town at the Barnes & Nobles and such. I understand it’s not approved for highway travel.




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  2. Janis Gore says:

    I recently read a novel that mentioned the BMW Isetta.




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  3. Herb says:

    I wouldn’t ride in one of those death traps if you paid me.

    At least not out amongst the big boy cars. On a closed track in a paid commercial? Maybe…




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  4. sam says:

    Where I live, some folks drive Smart Cars. Given the driving habits of my community — the posted speed limit is the minimum speed limit — I refer to them as Suicide Cars.




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  5. floyd says:

    This is not a new idea, KEI regulations caused the production of tiny cars in Japan from the late 50’s.
    I own a 1970 Subaru 360 sedan. It seats 4 and weighs only 925 pounds,top speed is 70MPH and it is rated @ 66MPG.
    Also post war europe produced many microcars,
    Bruce weiner has a museum in Georgia dedicated to Microcars, some as small as 49CC
    Look here…..

    http://www.microcarmuseum.com/




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  6. John Burgess says:

    Truly, the only answer–and it’s not much of an answer–is multiple cars. One would be super-efficient, used for in-town driving and minimal hauling of either cargo or passengers. The other would have space and an engine to deal with highways. A third might be solely capable of feeding the owner’s ego needs.

    Millions of people wouldn’t find this a suitable solution, though: lack of cash, lack of garaging, lack of incentive.

    For the majority, it’s back to finding the right balance that provides adequate (in the consumer’s mind) levels of efficiency, safety, and performance in a single vehicle.

    BTW, didn’t Mercedes announce that it was dropping Smart Car?




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  7. sam says:

    BTW, didn’t Mercedes announce that it was dropping Smart Car?

    Hmmm. Don’t think so. Daimler, which owns Mercedes, seems to be continuing it poor sales or no, or so this story seems to indicate: Daimler Seen Swinging To EUR277M 4Q Net Profit:

    Daimler’s core Mercedes-Benz Cars division is poised to drive the company’s recovery as demand for the high-margin E-Class model and the flagship S-Class sedan has been firming up in recent months. Improving sales momentum at Mercedes-Benz is expected to more than offset poor sales at the division’s ultra-luxury Maybach name plate and the Smart minicar brand.

    Crap. That link won’t work from here. I got it from googling ‘Smart Car Daimler’ and clicking the News link.




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  8. John Burgess says:

    Okay. I could have sworn I saw a piece that said Mercedes/Daimler was dropping it, but I can’t find it now. Perhaps it was dropping it in only certain markets.




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  9. tom p says:

    Why, we could just put the cars on auto-pilot and catch up on our reading whilst being chauffeured to work.

    I had one of these back in the early 80’s… It was called a “bus”.

    On the more serious side, this would never be anything more than a niche vehicle (which if I still lived in the city, I would definitely be interested in one if the price was right)(his pricing is insane, and the “self driving” is sort of sci-fi) As is, I live in the country and typically drive 30-70 miles to various job sites so the limited range of an elec car is just not practicable. I do have 2 vehicles now: A 2005 chevy p/u with full ins (still making payments) and a 2002 buick centruy which can get over 30 mpg (i got it for a steal, $500)(ins= $170/yr at liability only). The buick is my everyday vehicle, the truck for when I have to haul stuff or when I am heading into the backwoods.

    I can definitely see a hybrid in my future.




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  10. James Joyner says:

    We’ve got three vehicles now, since I acquired my father’s 2008 Nissan Altima upon his recent death. This adds to the wife’s 2010 Toyota minivan and my 2005 Nissan 350Z Roadster. My original intention was to use the Altima as an emergency vehicle but I’ve actually been driving it exclusively since it’s better in the ice and snow than the Z.

    But three cars is a luxury available to me because we make a very nice living and have plenty of built-in parking in our house in the ‘burbs. It’s impractical for most people.




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  11. Anon says:

    Uh, I don’t see where Avent says that it would cost a few hundred dollars. But I do see where he says that it weigh a few hundred pounds.




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  12. Franklin says:

    For my particular commute, I should be biking the 4 or 5 miles, and I sometimes do. But then there’s the weather. Or the chance that I might have to do an unexpected errand, like pick up a sick kid from school or daycare. Or the chance that some latte-sipping cellphone-talking retard (oh, yes I did use that word) will make me a not particularly appetizing piece of roadkill.

    Yet another vehicle would solve 2.5 of these 3 problems. It’s probably not going to be quite as safe as wrapping myself in two tons of steel, but it might be easier to park. But where do I store it at home?




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  13. James Joyner says:

    Uh, I don’t see where Avent says that it would cost a few hundred dollars.

    Hereyago:

    could eventually retail for the price of a computer

    PCs and netbooks routinely sell for under $1000 now.




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  14. tom p says:

    Uh, I don’t see where Avent says that it would cost a few hundred dollars. But I do see where he says that it weigh a few hundred pounds.

    anon, he said:

    Something like that could eventually retail for the price of a computer,

    Maybe we are assuming too much by thinking of home computers or laptops, but if he doesn’t mean them, he is assuming too much by thinking we would know he meant a super expensive main frame.




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  15. Ken F says:

    If such a thing actually was practical, and there was a demand for it other than some idealistic wish, and therefore someone could actually profit from making them—well, someone would already be making them. Exactly the same thing as on the opposite end of the spectrum…high-speed-rail.




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  16. tom p says:

    James, ya beat me to anon.

    My wife and I have 3 vehicles also. Tho we are not well off by any means, we are smart with our money. As a union carpenter we never know how long I will be working (a layoff is always coming) so when I work I save like a mad man to cover the lean times. On avg, we both make 40-45K/yr so we do alright.




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  17. tom p says:

    If such a thing actually was practical, and there was a demand for it other than some idealistic wish, and therefore someone could actually profit from making them—well, someone would already be making them.

    Have to disagree with your conclusion, Ken. Any smart bussiness tries to get ahead of the curve. By your logic we we would still be using horse and buggies.




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  18. JKB says:

    Once you’ve engineered something to safely travel at 20-30 mph, the cost of increasing the speed to 70-100 isn’t that much. A 40 mile range would mean your commute could only be about 10-15 miles for your auto-car to make it home after running errands and would then recharge during the height of the daily electricity usage cycle.

    Not to mention practicality, such as going to pick up a sick kid in the middle of the workday, going to pick up your auto-car when it has an accident, etc.

    In any event, we don’t permit UAVs to fly over US airspace without a chase plane, we don’t allow autonomous underwater vehicles to operated in our harbors without a chase boat, why would we permit autonomous cars to operate on our already congested streets without someone overseeing them. The autonomous advocates always gloss over liability and just how far away we are from the AI necessary for them to mix it up with all the other vehicles, people and things moving about without causing mayhem.




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  19. Drew says:

    A while back – on a different blog – I found myself in a pitched (read: ugly) battle with Paul Scott, basically the father of the electric car.

    He was castigating me for driving my 911 while touting some high end electric car model that could do a better zero to 60. I made the same point as Herb, they are death traps. That’s why they are fast.

    Look, Mr and Mrs America are not in the mood for these cars. Nor should they be. Comfort, safety practicality all make the public desire real cars. And with MM global warming going down the drain don’t expect weird egg shaped mini-cars soon.




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  20. Steve Verdon says:

    What about the potential for something weighing just a few hundred pounds, battery-powered with a range under 40 miles, perhaps a one-seater with room for groceries, and with a typical cruising speed of between 20 and 30 mph?

    DOA, where I’d live the freeway would be clogged with these cars with dead batteries every morning and evening.

    Move along nothing to see here.




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  21. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    The safety add ons of modern cars preclude them from weighing less. Government intrusion into regulating the auto industry by telling free people what they can buy instead of letting the market decide, has made cars 500 to 1000 pounds heavier than they need to be.




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  22. sam says:

    @Drew

    He was castigating me for driving my 911

    Ya know, it’s really, really hard to stay pissed at a guy who drives a 911.




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  23. PD Shaw says:

    The car I mentioned at the top of the thread would be described by me as a small Yugo with two-seats. It has a bit more frame to it than some of these cars linked above. The Yugo sold for just under $4k back in 1986, so I wouldn’t be surprised that one could manufacture a vehicle that is ugly and not approved for highway travel for the price of a computer.

    Not for me though: two kids, two-car garage, ten minute commute time on accident prone roads.




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  24. Dave Schuler says:

    Several people have already mentioned the safety considerations. Remember that these vehicles would need to use the same roads that semis, panel vans, and regular autos do for the foreseeable future. Right now anything that would be light enough and cheap enough to meet the criteria would crumple like a paper cup in a vehicle collision.

    That won’t always be the case. Some of the new materials coming down the pike could well change that. But current technology…

    And manufacturing millions of these things and the (presumably) batteries that power them would have environmental hazards all their own. We’d also be exchanging oil dependency for rare earth dependency. Most of those are mined in China.

    Wouldn’t it be cheaper, more efficient, and more practical to reduce or eliminate commutes altogether?




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  25. PD Shaw says:

    Oops, by mid-day I’d forgotten that electrical power was a required element. I think the Yugos were powered by diesel and rubberbands.

    Still, some of the rural towns around here have recently lifted bans on driving golf carts on town streets, so that [er] senior citizens can drive down to the diner or out to the gas staton convenience store. You just got to watch out for city slickers driving their 911 through town at 84 mph.




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  26. Drew says:

    “Ya know, it’s really, really hard to stay pissed at a guy who drives a 911.”

    Not Paul Scott. In fact, he called me a murderer, because a 911 uses more gas than he deems “correct”, and as we all know – in his world view – gas users are really energy Nazis who invade foreign lands and kill women and children so we can drive our cars.

    I’m prone to hyperbole, but I tell you that is exactly his worldview, no BS. Maybe you can find the exchange at LibertyWorks.




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  27. Drew says:

    Dave Schuler says:

    “Right now anything that would be light enough and cheap enough to meet the criteria would crumple like a paper cup in a vehicle collision.”

    Absolutely correct. And Newton’s Laws still pertain…..

    “That won’t always be the case. Some of the new materials coming down the pike could well change that. But current technology…”

    Uhhhh….Not so sure.

    As our resident (former) metallurgist I’m happy to inform the group that I was intimately involved in commercializing HSLA (high strength, low alloy) sheet steels for automotive applications. But its been awhile – like 25 years. I know of no emerging, economically viable materials for automotive structural or skin panel applications. Sorry. Aircraft? Yes. Cars? No.

    “And manufacturing millions of these things and the (presumably) batteries that power them would have environmental hazards all their own. We’d also be exchanging oil dependency for rare earth dependency. Most of those are mined in China.”

    Thank you for making this point. It is little advertised, and little understood…….probably intentionally.

    “Wouldn’t it be cheaper, more efficient, and more practical to reduce or eliminate commutes altogether?”

    My wife and I talk all the time about returning to the city……………….after our daughter passes the period where she would have to attend Chicago Public Schools. Talk about unintended consequences of the Democrat agenda.




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  28. Franklin says:

    The safety add ons of modern cars preclude them from weighing less. Government intrusion into regulating the auto industry by telling free people what they can buy instead of letting the market decide, has made cars 500 to 1000 pounds heavier than they need to be.

    While grossly exaggerated, there is *some* truth here. But people are more aware of safety these days and buy cars that are safer. And they also demand power locks, power steering, power windows, butt heaters, nav systems, DVD players, BlueTooth, etc. etc. These things actually weigh something, too, especially when you include the extra wiring and battery needed to power them. I suspect that consumers are far more responsible for the weight gain than the government.




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  29. Franklin says:

    And Drew-

    Dude, even responsible Republicans are okay with conserving energy, or do you not have any insulation in your house because it’s obviously a commie plot?

    I’m not really one to talk, however, with an M3 tucked away in the garage for the winter …




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  30. Dave Schuler says:

    “That won’t always be the case. Some of the new materials coming down the pike could well change that. But current technology…”

    Uhhhh….Not so sure.

    Someday carbon nanotube materials, not just for bodies but for other mechanical parts, could be put to this sort of use and give you the weight and strength you need. Right now they don’t have the compression strength for the job.




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  31. sam says:

    @Drew

    I’m prone to hyperbole, but I tell you that is exactly his worldview, no BS. Maybe you can find the exchange at LibertyWorks.

    Nah. I’ll trust your doucheometer on this one.




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  32. Drew says:

    And Franklin –

    “Dude, even responsible Republicans are okay with conserving energy, or do you not have any insulation in your house because it’s obviously a commie plot?”

    Why the stupid comment? I even use those curly light bulbs and rant to my wife and daughter about turning off lights…….which seems to be a foreign concept to women. What’s that got to do with commie plots?

    Dave –

    “Someday carbon nanotube materials, not just for bodies but for other mechanical parts, could be put to this sort of use and give you the weight and strength you need. Right now they don’t have the compression strength for the job.”

    Sort of my point. Someday = almost forever. Engineering materials tend to have have certain inherent characteristics, unless they are composites.

    Carbon? Never for skin panels. Go investigate the nature of their production and their loading/energy absorption requirements in a car. As for mechanical parts, very few require only tensile strength. In fact, most high strength parts must take compression, bending and torsional loading as well. By the nature of their application they must absorb energy – that is, they must be able to withstand significant aplastic deformation in normal use, and be “ductile” in a wreck.

    Not really the forte of large scale carbon materials. Very specialized.




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  33. Drew says:

    sam –

    ;->




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  34. Franklin says:

    Why the stupid comment?

    Despite the disclaimer, I assumed you were still being hyperbolic about Paul Scott, so I was returning the favor. It just came off sounding like you burn gas for the sake of it or to spite the libruls with the commuting comment. If not, my mistake.




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  35. Franklin says:

    BTW, you don’t know anything about a plane going down over East Palo Alto, do ya?




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  36. chris says:

    Have any of you people heard of cities? Lots of people live in them. They have highways, but those are generally for the purposes of getting people into and out of the city. Obviously a car with a TOP speed of 70 mph is not meant for all of you exurban dwellers who spend most of your time tailgating people on the interstates.

    One of the cool things about living in a city, in case you dont know, is that you dont really have to leave it all that often. Consequently, many of your trips are under 5 miles and on roads where your average speed is 25mph. For the millions of urban Americans, really small cars could be quite useful.




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