Photos and images by the author
Photo: Andrew P Collins

Sloths are perennial contenders for the title of Earth’s Cutest Creature, due partially to their inherent helplessness. They’re pretty much just sentient compost piles, and on the rare occasions that they have to traverse the ground, they’re in danger. So you know what they need? Sloth-sized cars.

Actually, what sloths really need is for deforestation to stop in their native habitats of Central and South America. If they had plenty of trees to live in and climb through, they wouldn’t have to risk life and slow-moving spindly limb by covering flatlands and trying to cross roads.

But I’ve been thinking about a Slothmobile for weeks, and I’m running Jalopnik today, so we’re going to talk about my concept for a sloth car whether it makes any sense or not. (It doesn’t, really, because unlike Jason’s brilliant squid car idea from 2015, the creature in question here could never possess the intelligence to operate any sort of machine.)

With that disclaimer out of the way and your suspension of disbelief engaged, let’s get back to the task at hand.

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There are three main reasons a sloth would leave the relative safety of tree branches: to get to a new tree when branches don’t connect, to poop, and possibly, maybe, to try to recover a fallen baby sloth. That pretty much applies to all six species of both two and three-toed sloth: the maned sloth, brown-throated, Linnaeus’s two-toed, Hoffman’s two-toed, and even the incredibly adorable sloth pygmy three-toed sloth. Though those little guys actually live on an island, and would probably benefit more from a boat.

A wild sloth sleeping

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All sloths outside captivity tend to be solitary creatures, so if two males find themselves on the same tree, they might scrap, or they might just part ways, but they wouldn’t generally share a tree for long. They also seek new trees when searching for female partners, but sloth couples don’t spend their lives cuddling. They pretty much just mate and move on.

As for the pooping, sloths shimmy down the trunk of the tree they’re occupying every week or so and defecate near the base. I have heard that this helps fertilize the tree, and it’s also where the moths that live in sloth fur (yes, that’s also a thing) spawn their offspring. The infrequency of bowel movements is basically on account of the sloth digestive system which is, you guessed it, slow. It has to be to squeeze any nutrition out of leaves.

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Wow, I’m pretty proud of myself for getting you to read 300 words about sloths on Jalopnik, but now let’s get to the car stuff.

The sloth vehicle would need to be extremely easy to operate, because sloths are not too bright. It would have to be robust, because it would be trucking through the jungle and resisting predators like jaguars and harpy eagles, and it has to be visible to humans so it could safely cross roads for real cars.

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Ergo, my design is pretty simple.

Built around a basic bus-like rectangular shape, a sloth driver would enter its Slothmobile from the top. Four grab handles on the roof, which is also a door, would make a grip for each of the creature’s appendages. Once the sloth was hanging on all of the handles, a revolving trapdoor would activate so the sloth would be inside the vehicle, hanging upside down, without actually moving any more.

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The handles would then become controls–left and right forepaws would steer, while the feet (hindhands?) would do throttle and brake.

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Drive-by-wire, steer-by-wire, everything would have to be electronic for such an odd multi-purpose interface to work. It’d be like a video game controller.

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Since sloths have poor eyesight, the vehicle would have to rely on sonar equipment (parking sensors) and the jungle floor equivalent of lanekeeping. Maybe another more ambitious animal could develop that and map all the roots and ruts and swamps in Costa Rica. Otherwise, a car manually steered by a sloth would pretty much be bouncing off trees with the grace of a Roomba your mom spilled chardonnay on.

Speaking of features, the Slothmobile would need a large LED warning light on each side, which would blink when the beast wanted to cross a road for human cars. That would dramatically improve the sloth’s odds of making it from one side of a road to another without getting run over.

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For collecting snacks (freshly fallen leaves), or perhaps for picking up a lost baby sloth, the Slothmobile is going to get a retractable front ramp-type-mouth for scooping things up and bringing them into the cabin.

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Windows would be cages, to let moths pass through but keep jungle cats and raptors out. The floor could have a hole in the back, which would effectively be the sloth’s toilet, since they’d probably have to go by the time they got down the tree and into the car.

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As for propulsion, electric power would be the most environmentally friendly but developing the charging network would be a nightmare. I think the sloths are going to have to subcontract with monkeys that could quickly and easily scamper from the top of a tree to the bottom, building charging stations fed by solar panels mounted all the way up above the jungle canopy.

Since sloths only travel by ground rarely, and only go down every couple weeks if they can help it, a very slow charge rate would be sufficient. The vehicle would be pretty miserly with its range anyway, as the average sloth tops out at 0.15 mph, the vehicle would have to be limited to about 0.2 to keep the creature from getting whiplash.

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Now that we know the Slothmobile is electric, the battery could be built into the floor and all four wheels could be powered by their own motor, eliminating the need for centrally-originating axles. Essentially, it looks a little like a space rover. And naturally, the gearing is like first in low range in a Jeep Wrangler–all power, no speed.

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Once a sloth got to its destination, it would simply pull all four handles simultaneously, hold for a certain number of seconds, causing the car to stop and reverse-spin the door/driving mechanism the animal was clinging to.

Without bothering to consider manufacturing, maintenance, or the basic tenet of sloths that can drive, I think the Slothmobile plan here is pretty airtight. Well, not too airtight, so the arboreal beings can breathe. But. You get it.