Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
The Germans – of course – are working on it.
If you’re in the market for a car in a crowded inner city, you inevitably have to chose between two mutually exclusive options. You can get a tiny car, good for parallel parking in enviable tight spots, or you can get something with a bigger frame but worse gas mileage that’s less likely to consume you in a collision. You cannot, as a general rule, get both.
When it comes to electric cars, the choice is even rougher: The heavier and safer they get, the less range their batteries have. And so one of the challenges for engineers going forward is how to make electric cars both light, safe and wide-ranging for urban living (yes, yes, we know some people think urban living should require no car at all).
A German consortium of researchers and car-makers is at work on this, in what’s called the Visio.M project. Their prototype, pictured above, includes an interior passenger compartment made of lightweight carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic. We're not auto engineers, but the researchers say the body structure is one typically used in racing cars, while some of the composite materials in the vehicle come straight out of aircraft and luxury sports cars. They’re also toying with safety ideas like specially adapted seat belts to minimize collision injuries.
This all sounds promising, although we’re less convinced by the color scheme:
The researchers also admit that they’ve had to make concessions in one other major way to avoid skimping on safety and compact size: These materials aren’t cheap. So we won’t hold our breath for the mass-market compact and safe e-car any time too soon.
The prospect of one, though, does raise an intriguing question: What will mockers of the Smart Car say when they can no longer argue that little urban compacts are death traps to drive?