This week on Car Hacks I'd like to talk about an idea that I've had banging around in the empty vastness of my head for some time. I usually have this idea when one of my old cars leaves me stranded by the side of a busy highway.
The idea's really simple: what if there was a way I could get my car (and myself) to safety without having to deal with the expense and hassle of a tow truck?
I've visualized the idea as I've been stuck on the shoulder, changing a fan belt or rigging up a temporary throttle cable linkage, with a paperclip, voiding my bladder lavishly as 18-wheelers zoom past a couple of feet away from my head. What I always picture in these times of crisis, is some sort of motorized wheel thing I could clamp to the back of my car, and use to drive away to somewhere safe to work, or possibly even home. Could such a device work?
The more I think about it, the more I think it could. In fact, there have been similar devices in the past— when I was researching this post, I learned about the Briggs and Stratton Motor Wheel. That motor wheel is pretty much what I want- a little motorized wheel to temporarily make my car drivable.
So how could you update a Motor Wheel to work today? Here's what I would think it would need:
• A Motor: Duh. I'm thinking something in the 40-50 HP range would be enough. It doesn't have to be fast, just enough to push your disabled vehicle at a maximum of 50 mph or so. The smaller and lighter the engine the better. A 600cc three cylinder from the Smart car could work, or a variety of motorcycle engines, or one of many utility engines made by Honda or Kawasaki or whomever. Something that could be packaged in a box about 2'x3'x3' or so.
A simple CVT transmission would work well in this context as well; something basic, not unlike what old DAFs used.
• A Wheel: I'm thinking here you could use a standard temporary spare tire. The unit could have one already attached, or not, for a possible more collapsable version you could pack in a trunk or trailer.
• A way to connect it: This part is trickier. I'm thinking a clamp assembly with two adjustable, padded and rubberized plates. You'd secure it in place by opening the rear trunk or hatch (or engine lid), and clamping the body/frame of the car between the plates, one inside, one out. If your car has no rear opening panel of any kind (Nash Metropolitans?) then you could clamp it to the bumper/bracket assembly.
A standard tow hitch connection would also be available. And, there'd be a big rubber block where it would face the back of the car to prevent damage.
• A way to make it work: Fuel would get to the assist unit via your car's own gas tank— a hose would be provided to feed fuel from the car's tank to the assist motor. A small (<5 gal) tank would be on board the unit, to help if fuel is out and to help with getting the unit to the car (more on that soon). Electrical power from the alternator/battery on the assist unit would feed the car's electrical system via a pair of 12V jumper cables. That way, the car's electrical systems could still function, providing lights and, in some cases, steering and brake assist.
• A way to control it: Since we live in the future (iPhones, Dippin' Dots) and all, I think the assist unit could be controlled by wireless Bluetooth-type signals. A small sender would be clipped on the gas pedal, and send the angle of depression to the assist unit's computer, which would convert that to throttle position. On/off and other controls could be handled by a small remote inside the disabled car.
• A way to get it to the car: No motor is really light, so to get the assist unit to the car, the clamp assembly would be used as a push handle, and the wheel would operate in reverse, providing a small amount of power to assist the person pushing the unit to their car. Two small auxiliary wheels would drop into position to keep the unit stable while being transported.
So what do you think? I'm imagining gas stations would have a few of these on hand for rent, and when your car died, you'd trudge to a gas station, rent one, hook it up, get home, then return it to that same company's station wherever you are. Sort of like one-way U-Haul rentals. This could be much much cheaper over long distances than a tow truck, and much more convenient. Staying off large, high-speed highways, I don't see why this couldn't be used to transport non-running cars fairly long distances, assuming their suspension, brakes, steering work.
There are some issues, the biggest of which being power assist. How could you get non-electric assisted steering and brakes to work via something like this? Maybe a separate electrically driven motor you could clap and connect via belt to hydraulic pumps or power steering pumps? I'm not sure. I usually pictured this when my old Bug had roadside issues, so power assist rarely entered my head.
Since I like to think of Car Hacks as a virtual garage where we're all swilling bad beer and talking, I'd love to hear what you're thinking in the discussion, even if it's just a variety of ways to call me an idiot.
If it helps, picture this: a new sub-LeMons racing series for non-running cars and these units! You gotta admit, that'd be fun.