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Designing the Sun Lover Part 1: Cars Are Stupid

“For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.”

Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed

Last week Judy and I witnessed a pedestrian struck by a motorist. The pedestrian was crossing in a crosswalk and the “walk” sign was lit. The motorist came at her from behind at high speed. The pedestrian was struck violently and thrown a dozen feet by the force of the blow. As she lay in the street screaming a crowd of people gathered around her. We overheard some people in that crowd questioning what she must have done in order to cause this “accident”. Judy and I could see that this was no accident: one person had committed an act of violence against another person. And the cause was clear: the motorist’s choice of transportation had endangered everyone in their path. And yet the crowd wanted to blame the pedestrian.

Our transportation system creates an arena for immense violence, as much as any war. Here I am using the word violence simply to mean momentum, mass times velocity. Violence is not necessarily intentional; a big storm can be violent. Cars are violent because they bring to every street corner large masses moving at high speeds. Want to reduce violence in the world? Don’t drive. 

Transportation today is in a sad state of affairs in many other ways as well. We live in a society that, despite dire warnings to the contrary, thinks it’s okay to burn obscene amounts of fossil fuels in order to carry incredibly heavy glass and steel “rooms” with comfy seating for four or five people wherever we go. Somehow we have become convinced that nothing less than a four thousand pound vehicle capable of  traveling at high speeds is necessary for our personal transportation. The number of people moving around this much unnecessary weight is destroying our planet. . 

Furthermore, motorists have spent a century poisoning our cities with their toxic waste. We have taken for granted their noise and stink. We no longer even notice the incredible amount of space in our cities that they take up. They have created zones of terror around our living spaces that children, pets and wild animals cannot venture into upon pain of death. What are we thinking? Why do we put up with motorists? Why do we subsidize them, the very people who threaten our lives in so many ways, the very people who are so harmful to our health, our living spaces, and our climate?

Motorists don’t realize the incredible harm they are causing. They are being lied to about safety. The propaganda that the automobile industry pushed on us in the 70s cleverly brainwashed motorists into believing that safety is only about the people inside their vehicle while subtly encouraging them to ignore the safety of the people outside their vehicle. And so we have the situation in which people think bicycling is “unsafe” whereas cars are considered “safe”. If we use the word “safety" in its original sense, in a holistic sense, meaning the safety of everyone affected by a product throughout the lifecycle of that product, bicycling is very safe and cars are very unsafe. A car’s great weight and speed is easily capable of killing a person outside the car, either directly by impact or by crushing them to death. A bicycle, hardly so. And a car’s great width makes our roads cramped and dangerous. A bike, not so much. Within this holistic view of safety, bicycling is very safe. Laudable even. But driving a car is shamefully unsafe. 

There is one subtle way in which our society admits that cars are incredibly dangerous, and motorists are at fault for all the pain and misery they cause: the car insurance industry is founded upon these very principles. Why is it that people are not required to have liability insurance for walking or bicycling in a city? Because the insurance industry makes its money based on statistical probabilities, and it is highly unlikely that a pedestrian or bicyclist will harm anyone.  But it is very likely that a motorist will harm someone. I found the following statements on the internet: “The average driver has a 1 in 107 chance of being involved in a fatal car accident each year.” And “Statistically, drivers are likely to experience 3-4 car crashes in their lifetime, and at least one driver or passenger is injured in 43% of those accidents.” (Interesting to note that the danger to people outside the car is not mentioned.) 

And motorists are being lied to about the harm they are causing to the environment. They are given the illusion of contributing to progress while still being expected to drive egregiously heavy vehicles. In the last century motorists were taught that being environmentally conscious meant driving a vehicle that could go 35 miles per gallon rather than 20 miles per gallon. Not driving a heavy vehicle at all was not encouraged as an option. In this century motorists are taught that they must still carry thousands of pounds of vehicle wherever they go, but if they power it with an electric motor instead of a gasoline-powered motor they are somehow doing something better for the environment. I call that bullshit. Why can’t our automobile companies design a vehicle that is safer (in the holistic sense), uses less energy, and uses less of our city’s resources because it is lighter in weight, smaller and slower? Why can’t they design a vehicle that weighs hundreds or even tens of pounds rather than thousands of pounds? Why can’t they design a vehicle powered by tens or even single digits of horsepower rather than hundreds of horsepower? Why can’t they design a vehicle that runs on solar power so that it never needs to stop at a gas station, or charge from the grid? The answer is, of course, that they can design such a vehicle. The technology exists. But they would rather keep you addicted to their wasteful product that is destroying the planet.

Imagining a More Better Vehicle

Imagine if overnight, cars were to somehow shrink to half their dimensions, from about 6 feet wide by 16 feet long to 3 feet wide by 8 feet long. What would be the effect? Think about it: all two-car garages would instantly become eight-car garages. The amount of street parking would instantly quadruple. And every two lane street would instantly become a four lane street. Traffic congestion would become a thing of the past. Why is it not possible to do this? Because, as described in part three of this essay, narrow lightweight cars are not stable at highway speeds. 

Imagine if overnight, cars were to somehow change from weighing 3,000 pounds to weighing less than 200 pounds. What would be the effect? For starters, cars would be a lot safer for pedestrians. Getting run over by such a car would certainly not be pleasant, but it wouldn’t instantly crush you to death. Secondly, such cars would need much less expensive infrastructure. A bridge for such a 200 pound vehicle would cost around $1,000 a foot compared to $10,000 a foot for today's overweight cars. Lastly, such cars would use a lot less energy. I have an acquaintance who decided he wanted to see how fast he could make a 50cc moped go. He souped it up in various ways so that instead of the normal 5 horsepower of a stock moped it could produce about 10 to 15 horsepower. He took it to the race track and set a speed record of 62mph. It doesn’t take a lot of horsepower to make a vehicle go fast. 10 horsepower is enough power for any reasonable form of personal transportation within a city. So why do cars today need a very heavy 200 horsepower motor? The reason is that, as described in part three of this essay, cars are purposefully designed to be heavy in order to make them stable at highway speeds.

In conclusion, cars are incredibly stupid. They are dangerous and unessessarily heavy and large. What can we do about that beyond simply complaining about it? In the next part of this essay I describe how I go from simply imagining a narrow lightweight vehicle to actually building one. 

Introducing the Sun Lover, an automobile alternative.


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