Driving the Spira 3-wheel prototype
By Mike Hanlon
December 11, 2009
The Spira three-wheeler is a unique vehicle. It's one of the finalists in the Automotive X-Prize but its frugal fuel consumption and low emissions are only part of the vision of making it a car for the people. The Spira starts with a scooter, uses everything but the frame, and all those parts bolt into a foam composite tub to create a lightweight (137 kg) three-wheeled two-seater with immeasurably greater crash protection for the occupants. Gizmag visited the Spira's home in Thailand to drive what inventor Lon Ballard hopes will become a machine for the people, and came away mightily impressed.
Lon Ballard has always had an eye for designing safer vehicles and has been sketching safer two and three wheeler designs since his first year studying engineering at the University of Illinois a few decades back.
His original concept was to use a series of external airbags to protect the rider and pillion in the event of an accident and his eureka moment came when he was sculpting a one tenth scale model of a three wheeler he'd designed to incorporate external airbags supported by an aluminium exoskeleton. Lon was shaping the foam model, stood back to get some perspective on his handiwork, and while looking at the model, he realised that it already had airbags – millions of them – and he subsequently embarked on quite a different design journey using foam to build a protective capsule - a poor man's equivalent to the carbon fibre driver protection tub used in Formula One race cars.
Once he moved to Thailand and witnessed the road carnage across Asia, he began work on his rider protection ideas once more and the vehicle I drove was the first prototype.
The laminated composite “tub” is both the chassis and the bodywork. Start with a scooter, throw away the frame and everything else is then bolted onto the tub, transforming a scooter into a tandem two seater which retains all the good aspects – principally low fuel consumption and ownership costs – maybe quadruples the carrying capacity, and loses the worst aspects of the scooter, being poor rider protection.
Despite its looks, it is incredibly light – at just 302lb (137kg), its performance is very lively for a vehicle with an engine of just 125cc. It has better performance than a small car in the form I drove it and and one of the prototypes is currently being fitted with a Kawasaki Ninja fuel-injected 250 motor as work begins in earnest for the X-prize competition - very few of the X-prize contenders will have performance to match the Spira because of that low weight and hence high power-to-weight ratio.
To fully understand the necessity of a vehicle such as the Spira, it's important to understand the rate at which people are being killed on the roads in Asia.
If you've never driven a car, or perhaps more importantly, ridden a motorcycle in Asia, I can vouch that it is indeed an entirely different ecosystem.
More than 90% of Asia's road users are motorcycle or scooter mounted, a far cry from not that long ago when bicycles were the mainstream road vehicle, but the big change in recent decades on Asian roads has been the proliferation of the motorcycle and the subsequent rise of the automobile.
And behavior on the road mirrors that of the jungle where survival probabilities in the case of an altercation are directly proportional to size, though in Asia, how much money and influence you have is the primary deciding variable. Having money means you're almost never in the wrong, and those with money drive cars and are effectively unaccountable.
Money equals a big 4WD with a bigger bullbar and mafia-style tinted windows, which means diminutive housewives and frail elderly can and do drive like Rambo with no respect for their poorer cousins and almost complete immunity for their actions. Public roads should accessible to all with safety and fundamental respect for humanity is the core … in most Asian countries, justice is only for the rich. Bullying and intimidation of smaller vehicles by larger ones is standard road behavior in Asia, and that's the fundamental problem.
Do we just accept the road toll as the inevitable cost of doing business.
Every news bulletin in the world carried the news of the air france disaster in June when one infant, seven children, 82 women and 126 men perished. It was a tragedy and the world held its breath for the victims and our worst fears were realised when 218 souls were lost.
But a much greater tragedy happens every single on our roads, day in day out, and it gets greater every day too. More people than that die every day on Chinese roads alone.
And while there was an outcry about the air disaster, we seem to accept a massive annual road toll as the price we pay for personal mobility and maybe what we've been sold as a symbol of freedom – the motor car - because one person dies every 27 seconds on a road somewhere on the planet, which equates to a stunning rate of attrition. WW2 was the greatest loss of life in humanity's long history, and 50 million people died in six years – a burn rate of roughly nine million humans a year. Well the road toll is currently 1.2 to 1.3 and heading for 2 million or more a decade from now.
Aggregate statistics are often difficult to relate to, and hence I looked around to try to find a way of putting them in perspective to highlight just how appalling the statistics we accept really are. For instance, ten times more people die on the roads each year than in the entire seven years of the Iraq War so far - with deaths on both sides and civilian casualties included. Then I put together a list of the most fatal wars in history, divided the number of deaths by the number of years to get the “burn rate” and then compared it with the annual road toll.
Despite mankind's long and extremely brutal history of war, only five wars in history have killed more people per year, and if we included the annual numbers for the road toll each year, only six wars would make the top 20.
Why do we ignore the loss of such a large slab of humanity on the roads – maybe it's because we have been conditioned, by the media and advertising, to see the motorcar as a symbol of personal freedom. Riding a motorcycle, you're seven times more likely to die in a western country than if you are driving a car, 20 times more likely if you are riding a bicycle. In developing nations, those numbers would be much higher. Now its not the motorcycles that are colliding with other motorcycles that is the problem – it's the cars mixed with the motorcycles and bicycles that are killing people, and its the mix of the vulnerable and the invulnerable that's the problem. After spending time in Amsterdam this year where the bicycle is the central mode of transport, I'm almost inclined to say let's do away with the car altogether in central urban areas and give the aged and the handicaped electric assist and save a lot of effort all round.
If we're going to have a more enlightened society for the good of all, maybe should we rethink our relationship with motorised transport.
The burden of road traffic injury is increasing dramatically each year in real terms. The people who are getting killed are the most active, the young, the most productive members of our society, and the resultant mass misery from a global road toll of 1.2 million human beings a year is worth contemplating. The devastation of the news that a brother or mother or father has been permanently incapacitated, that the breadwinner won't be bringing home the bread, that the child you've nurtured and loved to adulthood is dead or critically injured – we've only mentioned death until now, but there are another 50 million people seriously injured on roads every year, most of them in Asia too.
The cost in societal terms is inestimable – how do we reconcile that the automobile wreaks such a massive toll and so little has been achieved in reducing it.
Asia, the most populous region on earth, is undergoing massive economic growth, Asian societies are growing richer, and this is fuelling a rapid escalation in motorisation, with scooters and motorcycles making up the vast majority of sales due to their low cost and the suitable climate. Many Asian countries don't have compulsory helmets and there are no standards for helmets – check out the helmet I was wearing – it was the pick of the bunch of those I was offered when I rented a motorcycle, and I'd estimate it had the impact absorption qualities of an icecream container.
Many countries don't even have licensing, and most of those that do have police forces which are too under-resourced to devote any attention to road rule infringements at all. There's no earn to be had chasing the locals on motorcycles for traffic infrigments because they simply don't have enough money to make it worth the policeman's while. So as the Asian road population has soared, so has the carnage and its shaping up so badly that western politicians will be patting themselves on the back for their relatively excellent road safety efforts. The really bad news is what is going to happen to Africa when its motorisation gets into full swing, because it's potentially much worse again.
Looked at in cold hard dollars, the global economic cost is around US$500 billion. Half a trillion dollars. The Asia-Pacific region has 16% of the world's vehicles. It accounts for almost half of the world's road deaths.
The direct costs of road crashes in Thailand is around 3% of GDP. Now Thailand is far more developed and civilised than many other Asian countries and the real situation is masked by a lack of accurate statistics – the toll in China is almost certainly much worse than we can see. Life is very cheap in some of those countries and the numbers are rubbery, and you can count on them being far worse than Thailand – up to 4% of GDP in the worst countries. In some Asian countries the road toll, comprised almost entirely of the economically-disadvantaged in the population, who ride motorcycles because they can't afford cars, consumes more than 75% of all medical resources allocated to hospitals.
In most low and middle income countries, the economic costs of road crashes exceeds the amount of development assistance these countries receive annually.
That's your money folks. Now it is important that the richer countries share their wealth and resources more equitably with developing countries – I'm just trying to highlight how out-of-hand the problem has become. Those countries are going backwards.
So while the Spira is a finalist in the automotive X-prize, where it will compete against far better funded automotive companies and universites to demonstrate its low fuel consumption and emission potential, it's the safety aspect which offers the greatest upside. Lon Ballard designed this vehicle to be safe and cheap to buy and run, and its environmental credentials are just a by-product of those goals.
So what's it like to drive?
I had expected it to be far worse than it was because the machine I drove was the first prototype and it was rough around the edges. The accelerator was a metal bar, and I chose to take my sandals off and drive barefoot so I could “feel it” a bit better because it was safer that way. The motor in the machine I drove was just 125 cc and so I was pleasantly surprised, indeed, amazed at how well it performed.
That's mainly because it weighs a lot less than it looks like it does. The foam used is a close relative of the foam which most computers come encased in, so whilst it looks bulky it's also quite light. So light, it floats.
Driving the Spira was more fun than I'd imagined, due partly to its agility and roadholding, and partly to its celebrity status on the roads. If it looks different to you, imagine what it looks like if you only know a road system with bicycles and motorcycles and more recently cars, to see something like this coming down the road painted bright yellow. Spontaneous cheering from the locals, even before I'd reached them was not uncommon. That aspect, and the curiosity factor is currently a two-edged sword because it is such a novelty, that cars drive in very close proximity so the driver and or passengers can get a closer look, and take pictures and video. Stopping drew a crowd, I was never short of anyone to talk to about it.
If there's a downside to the size of the Spira, it's that you are low and suffer from poor situational awareness. In western society, when Lon unleashes what he's calling Version 2.0, cameras and screens will keep you fully informed, but for now, I rather missed the higher seating position and the awareness it offers.
The agility and roadholding of the machine was far better than I expected – as it was one of just a handful of spiras in existence, I wasn't keen on bending it, so I exercised more than a bit of restraint. Like many hands-on development engineers, Lon is his own test driver and when he hopped in the drivers seat though, he clearly knew its limits, and they were waay beyond where I expected them to be. It should be said that he drives the Spira day in day out, to work to meetings, to his engineering facility 30 miles away over those same agricultural rural roads and he drive it like a go-kart, exploring what might break when you push it to its limits.
The weight of the Spira is so low that it changes direction easily, brakes far quicker than a car and like a gokart or genuine race car, you can micromanage it around a corner driving fast
In reality it comes across as somewhere between a low and narrow sportscar, a go-kart and one of those minimalist solar race cars, sans solar panelling. Everything is so minimalist, it makes a Lotus look like a luxury car, it's all relative,
but it also has features I've never experienced before. The day I drove it was very hot, so we returned to base after a few miles to remove and store the roof and I'd suggest that when the Spira hits the market it will almost never be used with a roof . Removing the roof turned it into an open top sports car where you can rest both elbows on the “door sills” and once I'd reassured myself that there was indeed a very solid roll cage incorporated into the seat, the additional airflow made things far more pleasant.
In most asian countries with their oppressive heat, I think a tonneau-style covering would be all that's required to stop it from filling up with water when it rains.
Given the prototype spira I rode used the brakes and suspension of a scooter, it coped surprisingly well with the pot-holed roads of rural Chonburi. Roads in developing economies get far less funding than those the majority of our readership are accustomed to, and are often littered with massive pot-holes, sudden broken surfaces and … we suspect that if the Spira is ever to be sold in kit form, which is a possibility given that second-hand scooters are universally available across asia, there will need to be an upgraded spring and damping kit as part of the package.
Though scooters are usually over catered for with disk brakes, the Spira's extra weight and lack of venting for the encloed front wheel eventually took its toll.
I eventually managed to run out of brakes on the Spira, but only aftr it had been carrying two 80+ kilo passengers and the additional weight of the foam tub for a couple of hours or more in 35 degrees. In an environemnt where its common place to find something coming towards you in your lane, be a truck which can't be bothered waiting for the obstruction on the other side of the road to clear, or motor scooter carrying a small family or a couple of farmyard animals, or a years supply of something, or a makeshift sidecar with a full outdoor catering facilty, or some other unfeasibly large and heavy and dangerous lod, such as enough gas cylinders to blow up a small third world country … you need brakes that work, but I was carrying two big guys and I suspect the reduced ventilation to the single front disk brake was the real culprit. Lon has the ducting modifications well underway but even then, given that Asian ingenuity will find all manner of things to fill up the Spira's carrying capacity, I think twin disks will be needed to consistently pull up the extra weight it will ineitably carry.
Braking on the Spira required a little getting used to, as the left rear wheel does not have a brake in its current incarnation – stomping on the foot-controlled rear brake is hence similar to performing the same action on a motorcycle with sidecar in that it tends to veer to one side under heavy braking - the Spira's basically sound steering geometry disguises this somewhat but it's a safety cnsideration which will add expense to remedy.
For an upmarket spec model, braking on botherear wheels will be necessary.
The Spira V2.0 is the one most of the western world will be waiting for. In one incarnation the spira is a scooter-based low-cost, highly efficient, design for the masses, whilst it wouldn't take a lot to turn it into a wonderful, agile safe and ever so sporting three wheeled sports car, with cooled seats and all modern conveniences and a wicked power to weight ratio.
Version 2 will come in time, but right now, the focus is on providing a suitable vehicle at the lowest possible cost and taking most of the parts for the scooter and getting them into the most efficient form and a lot of the work is being done on better moulding techniques. Version two and air conditioning and sophisticated ducting is still a pipe-dream with the X-prize looming and taking a lot of Lon's attention on top of the continued development of Version 1.0 for the masses.
Lon's laminated tub idea is a very low cost way of producing very safe vehicles – it will ultimately yield a safe, economical car for the price of a motorcycle and with 80 million motorcycles sold each year in the world, there's clearly a place for a vehicle just like the Spira, which offers a far safer alternative to the motorcycle at a similar price.
At least the Spira will offer a vehicle that people in developing nations can afford, with the performance and low ownership costs of a two wheeler and the carrying capacity and safety of a car – it will become more attractive to these people who are, after all, seeking amenity from their transport.
Lon is seeking a partner to develop and manufacture the Spira – probably a motorcycle manufacturer, but possibly such a vehicle could see a car manufacturer so he doesn't doesn't have to go the more expensive route of breaking down existing machinery to create full machines and ultimately to purpose build far higher spec models.
The Spira could easily become an electric vehicle with no local emmissions produced and an even smaller carbon footprint. As we've said, Lon is a highly unreasonable man, and my money is on it happening with or without a partner, but it could be fast-tracked with the right partners, and save hundreds of thousands of lives every year into the progress.
Amazingly, it's a design that could offer just as much to the developed world as to the developing world.
Lon can be contacted here
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