Re: Impact safety (was Re: Fuel cells)

James Rogers (
Sun, 06 Jun 1999 12:24:27 -0700

At 01:31 PM 6/6/99 EDT, Greg Burch wrote:
>As a notorious sports car fanatic, I had to grit my teeth at this. Of
>the physics of your post is unassailable, but I find my little fiberglass
>hotrod increasingly threatened by massive steel SUV behemoths. I sense an
>arms race of mass going on around me on the freeway. Building light,
>high-performance (in many senses of the term) cars is more challenging than
>just welding on more steel, but there are certainly ways to make very light
>cars very safe: As just a couple of examples, crush zones and air bags are
>huge advances over the death traps of my youth. (I sat in a beautifully
>restored 1962 Thunderbird recently and felt threatened by the dashboard
>the car was sitting still!)

While I don't drive much any more, I frequently drive a sporty two-door vehicle when I need to run an errand around town. I have to admit that sports cars are a lot more fun to drive in general. The vehicle-to-human interface in modern, high-performance sports cars is very well done. Nonetheless, for my frequent long-range road trips to the uninhabited parts of North America, I take my Bronco every time.

The vehicle arms race does seem to be taking off. People who drive my Bronco immediately notice that they get a lot more "respect" when driving on the road. Instead of being rude, people get out of your way. But when I drive small sedans...

>Thinking up new, higher-tech auto safety systems is a drive-time hobby of
>mine. I've imagined compressed-gas (or even explosive) reactive crush
>automatic fire-fighting systems and a whole panoply of intelligent
>driver-augmentation IT systems, from collision avoidance laser radar warning
>systems to intelligent emergency management "assistants" that take over more
>or less control of the car in fast-breaking situations. Of course, as fast
>as I think of these things, I read about them as just-over-the-horizon
>developments in actual automobile engineering practice. I'll certainly
>defend anyone's right to buy and drive an SUV, but they ARE the lowest tech
>vehicles on the road -- and at a time that can only be characterized as a
>golden age of automotive engineering and design . . .

I partially disagree here. Many of the SUVs popular in the suburbs *are* lightweight, modern vehicles. Most of these popular vehicles (particularly the imports) are essentially minivans with a new body design. Most SUVs popular today look more rugged than they actually are; they are primarily being designed as commuter vehicles. I think part of the popularity of SUVs, as they have currently been reinvented, are that minivans are definitely not "cool". SUVs retain the aura of coolness while keeping the usefulness of a minivan. A telling point is that many Japanese import SUVs are All Wheel Drive (AWD) vehicles, which is markedly inferior to true 4WD for rugged environments but fine if you never leave the highway. Most current SUVs are modern road vehicles in every sense of the word, nearly as much so as modern sports cars.

I still own my Bronco (a *real* SUV), but not because SUVs are currently popular; after all, the Bronco is not a "cool" SUV in the California sense. I own hundreds and hundreds of acres of remote property in the Nevada mountains (for camping, shooting, hunting, or whatever) that is only accessible with a vehicle like my Bronco. To reinforce a point, most popular (imported) SUVs fair poorly in these mountains without a lot of aftermarket reinforcement, whereas many American SUVs do fine in factory configuration with good tires. Most American SUVs (which were invented a long time ago because they have a real reason to exist in some parts of North America) are still built for rugged use, although this is also changing somewhat as they become popular suburban vehicles.

-James Rogers