Monday, April 27, 2009

Small Wonder

Not only is this the busiest time of the year for me in a when it rains, it pours sort of way--and I'm definitely not complaining with the economy the way it is--but I also have a zillion things to post about here. There's no way I'll get it all covered by the time the BKLYN DESIGNS show rolls around and adds more to the pile. That's coming up May 8th through the 10th. In any case, I'll try to keep updating here as regularly as possible.

In addition to the Architectural Digest show, from which I still have more to tell you about, I also went to the New York International Auto Show, as I do every year. I'd like to introduce those posts now, and perhaps keep switching around. It will keep the blog as fresh and exciting as it always has been.

Let me first say that I really love the big trucks and always look closely at them. The styling of trucks is a whole branch of industrial design unto itself. The mid-size sedans are sort of the anti-truck, and while the sports cars do need to speak of muscle, they also have to be impeccably streamlined and connote speed. The design of trucks is all about raw, unadulterated power and pure toughness. When their design captures this, it can be truly breathtaking, even pleasantly intimidating.

Having said that, I've grown to feel the same about the big trucks and SUVs as I do about fur coats. People who own fur coats who don't live someplace that could reasonably be expected to get down to fifteen below zero now and then make me sick, and wearing one in NYC in early spring just so you can feel fancy (I've seen it) makes me want to puke all over you. In this day and age, the way we've come to understand our planet, economy, and political climate, unless you work on a farm, own a landscaping company, or live at the end of a dirt road that gets four feet of snow every winter, you have absolutely no business driving around in a monster truck. It's completely irresponsible, unnecessary, and to risk being crass, having a smaller than average you-know-what is not a valid excuse for destroying the planet for the rest of us. I'm very sorry about your feelings of inadequacy, but...get a pump.

The funny side to this, though, and kind of embarrassingly ironic, as well, is that this is one of my dream cars:

It's the 1973 Cadillac Fleetwood. I want mine in that very '70s kind of copper penny color...maybe white leather interior. The 1975 Fleetwood was the longest regular production car ever produced--it was like twenty-five feet long or something outrageous. There's just something so disturbingly over-the-top about it, that 1970s American arrogance that also built the Twin Towers; I just love it. The '73 was a little bit shorter, very likely still bigger than anything else on the road at the time, but I like its lines much better than the '75. I realized I was actually going to have to measure the depth of my mom's garage to see if I could even store it there. The attraction is that I love me a good road trip, and this thing is more than just a Road Trip Mobile, it's fully like a living room on wheels. Awesome. Anyway, maybe if I ever get one I can have it converted to burn hydrogen fuel so I don't have to feel so guilty...or spend $150 every trip to the gas station.

The point of all this is that this time at the auto show, my eyes were much more focused on the smaller and more energy efficient offerings. Each year there seems to be one or two more than the year before, tiny steps toward the goal of releasing us from the bonds of gasoline. We have to do it. And I think we have to really get with it, because as it is, the US manufacturers are already coughing on some of the early dust kicked up in the wake of the foreign companies.

The one that has probably already come to most people's minds is Smart:
I love this glamour shot, too, because the Statue of Liberty makes a very European-sized vehicle look oh, so American, and the statue, like the Smart, was a gift from France. I have been seeing more and more of these around on the streets, too. I think NYC, unlike some other cities, is well-poised to embrace something that can be parked in a space normally available only to motorcycles. You could probably park two of these in the space taken up by my Cadillac, and I'm betting that you'd also fit nicely in a lot of those just a little too close to the hydrant spots we're always passing up for fear of a trip to the impound lot (I've been with a friend, it's no picnic).
It gets 41mpg on the highway, making it "the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid gasoline powered vehicle in the United States," according to their brochure. It also emits 50% less pollutants than an ordinary vehicle, which is nice to hear.

The concern, unfortunately, is safety. I was talking to a friend of mine about this, and we debated whether it might actually be safer because of its size. The idea we discussed was that you're sort of encased inside a pod, which should be structurally far more sound than a much bigger box, with so many more sides and beams and panels and joints and weaknesses. Structurally it would seem, the best thing you could be inside of is a steel sphere.

The problem, though, is that the Smart is so lightweight. A recent New York Times article discussed this at length, after tests showed damage from three of these minicars being hit by larger, mid-sized models by the same three manufacturers. With both vehicles traveling at 40mph in a head-on collision, the tiny ones basically bounce backwards, like a baseball being hit by a bat. Not very comforting.

I don't have the statistics, but I suspect that head-on collisions are far less common in NYC than, say, side-impact ones or fender-benders. I also don't think it would be as huge of a problem (in the sense that no one wants to be in a car accident, no matter what you're driving--unless you're a character in Crash who has a fetish for it), if your minicar weren't at risk of rolling and bouncing down the road like a rubber ball. My feeling is that if you want to maintain structural integrity and discourage rolling, the best shape would be a pyramid with four triangular sides. In any case, I fear this size of vehicle may never really take off in parts of the country with a lot of high-speed, highway commuting. There, perhaps bulkier but comparably lightweight cars are an acceptable solution.

I still applaud their marketing efforts. Highway-riddled American sprawl is not Smart's fault and needs to be tackled by New Urbanists and an effective, comprehensive reevaluation of our zoning laws. That also takes a lot longer to take effect. In the meantime, we can start by doing our own individual parts in the equation by purchasing more intelligently.

©2009, Ryan Witte

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