I have a bit of a problem. The cars I often find most interesting are, at least on paper, the most awful ones. And of all the cars at the Detroit Auto Show, with its Ford GTs and NSXs and all that, and was smitted by this three-wheeled, 500 lb electric shoebox made of styrofoam.
The 500lb shoebox is called the Spira4U, and it's not exactly styrofoam — the makers call it "styrofoam on steroids," but for me that just conjures up images of really jittery styrofoam with a hair-trigger temper. It's really that tough, rugged styrofoam that car companies use for your spare tire well tire/tool holder, or the sort of styrofoam that's found inside of bumper caps on your new car. It's tough, light, and I don't think ever used on the outside of a car.
The Spira is mostly covered with this stuff, primarily for safety reasons. Not just for the safety of the person in the car, but for any pedestrians or animals or cyclists you may happen to whack into. If you have to get hit by a car, one covered in eight inches of foam is clearly a better choice than one made of just steel.
The Spira sort of reminds me of a Velorex, that funny little leather-covered Czech car that helped mobilize a population recovering from a devastating war. The Spira is similar in that it's a very minimalistic take on personal transportation, though the goals here aren't entirely economical. The Spira is (at least partially) intended to replace the quite unsafe scooters and mopeds and small motorbikes that make up so much of the personal transport in the developing world and beyond with something that has the potential to save many lives.
Those inches of dense foam may not make a Spira as safe as a modern full-size car, but it's sure a hell of a lot better than what's so common now.
Spira was developed by Lon Ballard, and he's proven dedicated enough to move to China, along with his family and brother, to actually start building the cars. It's funny, almost every car company on the main floor of the show goes on and on about the "passion" they put into their cars — "passion" is to car PR flacks what "disruptive" is to tech dipshits — but it's hard to think of anything more passionate than moving halfway across the world to see through a car-building dream that is in no way guaranteed to succeed.
Doug Ballard, Lon's brother, showed me the basics of the car. The one at the show was electric, with a claimed range of 140 miles with the larger battery pack, and a potentially terrifying top speed of 60 MPH. When I asked Ballard about the inherent Reliant Robin-like instability of a tricycle-style three-wheel configuration, Ballard assured me that wasn't an issue. I'm not sure it's that quickly dismissible, but it's also not like this configuration hasn't been used successfully before.
The car comes in a gas version as well, with a 150cc engine that gets about 80 MPG and can hit about 53 MPH. Those numbers sound pretty close to what Elio is trying for, but these guys are actually starting production.
Both versions of the car are incredibly light — the electric one at the show only weighed about 500 lbs and the front can be lifted with one hand, as Doug gleefully demonstrated. The cars have a tough panel at their rear so they can be lifted up and parked vertically, even. And, since the cars are light and have so much styrofoam covering them, they're buoyant as well, and can be used like a boat.
The car was never actually intended to be amphibious, but Lon Ballard himself has driven the a Spiro into a river near the plant in China, paddled around for a bit, pulled it out, let the electric motor drip-dry for a few minutes, and drive away. The gas version could probably be even better, since you could run it in the water and maybe run a paddlewheel off the tires. That counts as amphibious, if you ask me.
I wasn't strictly allowed to drive in the basement of the Cobo center, but nobody really said we couldn't, either, so Ballard let me take the Spiro for a quick little jaunt over the carpet of the basement, and it was pretty fascinating. Getting in the car is petty conventional, once you accept that you're opening a door with a huge, thick coating of styrofoam on it.
It all feels pretty cheap, and, of course, it is. That's sort of the point. So, when evaluating it, you have to keep the flimsy fiberglass and chunky foam coverings over everything in their proper, economical/utilitarian context. The build quality has some issues, but I was assured these were being addressed on the production ones.
The controls are strange to drivers of a conventional car. There's a dash with pretty familiar switchgear, but the steering is this long, foam-wrapped arm. It pivots way down by the base of the windshield, so the arm's travel is long and a little weird. The throttle is on the handgrip, like a motorcycle, but the brake is in the conventional place.
Even with all the weirdness, driving is actually quite easy. You get used to the strange arrangement faster than you'd think, and the 30 HP motor shoves the 500 lb car along with surprising quickness, especially indoors, dodging tables and people and all that stuff you're not used to hurling towards at 15 MPH.
The instrumentation is pretty modern, and there's even an always-on reverse camera, to make up for the lack of a rear window. It works remarkably well.
Even though I was only in it briefly, I enjoyed my little jaunt in the Spiro, and am talking to them to try it for a longer period of time, in the out-of-doors, just like a real car. I think it could be a useful form of basic transport, and it was actually fun to drive.
There was another stranger feeling I got driving it, though, and it may be because of some recent choices of fiction. It felt a lot like the sort of car humanity would make as we all recovered from some sort of catastrophe — economic, environmental, military, whatever — but it had this sort of getting-by-in-a-world-made-lean feel. It wasn't a bad feeling as such, as it felt like a hopeful triumph of human cleverness over very hard times, but it's possible that people in the U.S. — where they hope to sell these as cheap, young-urban-person transport — may not want that association.
I think pricing will be the real determinant here. If they can get it to be just a bit more than the mopeds and scooters it wants to replace in many of its markets, this thing could do quite well. In the U.S., where it would be sold as a motorcycle, it's going to have to be enough cheaper than any number of used cars to make an impact. The 80 MPG and cheap ownership costs will help, but it needs to be near $5000 — well under, ideally — to have any hope at all.
The brothers Ballard say they think they can do it. I hope they can figure it out — this still seems a much more realistic prospect than the dream-like Elio, and could fill a similar niche. I can't really say until I get one to try in the real, cruel world, so I'll keep trying for that. Should be interesting.