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Looking Beyond the SUV – Literally

During the short seven months (August 2, 1990–February 28, 1991) that the Gulf War raged in the Middle East, I was at work on a book, Public Therapy Buses, Information Specialty Bums, Solar Cook-A-Mats and Other Visions of the 21st Century. The book, published by St. Martin’s Press in September 1991, featured my half-serious predictions for the coming decades. At the time, I could not help but notice the popularity of the U.S. military’s Humvee, so it was not much of a stretch to imagine that versions of those rugged, menacing truck-sized vehicles would become a successful consumer item. I predicted the arrival in the not distant future of Mean Cars. I wrote:
Auto stylists, ever sensitive to shifts in the collective mood, detect an angry, defensive attitude in Americans and offer them the road-hugging, angular, "tank" look in mottled, spattered, or camouflage colors. Cars have narrow slots for windows, body armor, bullet-proof glass and teargas guns.

My prediction was substantially accurate.  Not only would car models start looking meaner, they would get larger and heavier.  The Hummer became an instant commercial success even if the few who bought them, including California’s Governor-to-be Arnold Schwarzenegger, had no need for such a mammoth vehicle for grocery shopping or commuting to work.

(Image source)

The chart shows the steady growth in sales of SUVs after the Gulf War until around 2005, when demand began to sputter. In 1990, what I had failed to imagine was how the future mix of vehicles, which offered a more extreme range in the size and mass of passenger vehicle models, would co-exist on the streets and highways of America. I had not foreseen how the success of the Light Truck vehicle segment (mostly SUVs) would create a dangerous disparity in weight and mass compared with compact cars. And then there was the problem of seeing over these tall vehicles! Lined up at an intersection, a compact car could now be stuck inside a “canyon” of tall cars.

I proposed a variety of ways to enable the small car driver to see over and around SUVs. My first concept was the Rooftop Periscope Sedan, shown in pink. It seems crude and comical to me now. In the inset above, a goldenrod-painted vehicle has an improved design, with a video camera atop a telescoping mast which slides inside a vehicle pillar.

More recently in 2006 I drew a more robust version of this design, with a TrafficView video camera mounted at the tip of a telescoping antenna. The camera’s view angle and sweep can be adjusted by the driver even while the vehicle is in motion. The video signal from the camera would feed to LCD screens on the front visors and on the back of front seat headrests. The effect of vibration on the video signal, as well as the possibility of an undesirable rhythmic whipping of the antenna in high wind or at high speed would need to be studied.

The anger that I have felt trying to see around SUVs, while sitting down low inside my otherwise wonderful 5-speed Honda Prelude, is perhaps the motivation for these cartoonish solutions. Anger is a great motivator for creativity.

This small convertible features an unusual box-shaped center section that telescopes. When raised, the driver and passenger can easily see over small trucks, minivans and SUVs. The combined feeling of wind in one’s hair while enjoying a great view, and sensing a higher, less stable center of gravity would make for an exciting ride.

The TipUp Sedan offers a substantially improved view of the road ahead when it is tipped up. When in Tip Up Mode, gas mileage suffers, however. Also, in that mode, rear seat passengers lose their view of the road ahead.

The Traffic Peep, with a real-time video camera in its nose, potentially has design flaws, but given that I lack my own wind tunnel for performing tests at different speeds and in cross winds, it is hard to know for sure how it would perform in real world situations. Perhaps this helium-filled blimp would swish back and forth at highway speeds, or flutter like a kite, creating a shaky video image.

My favorite solution so far is the ViewCab. It even has an attractive Steampunk look because of the way its old-fashioned-appearing Driver’s Elevator is integrated into the design. It would be necessary to perform safety tests to determine if raising and lowering the Elevator while at highway driving speed was safe. And certainly it can be assumed that gas mileage would suffer when the Elevator was in the up position. But for around town, I would love to drive a ViewCab. And I could look down into other cars, the way SUV and truck drivers do. I would have a feeling of greater control and power when driving my ViewCab.

Visit Steven M. Johnson at his website.

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This is absolutely hilarious! I love it! I have similar wild ideas, but — darn — I don't have the talent to draw.

I love this post so much, I'm linking to it in my next blog post: On this blog, I discuss this and other frustrations with driving. Thanks for sharing these ideas with the world!
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Girl: I usually design stuff – most of it silly – that I myself might like. The Yogamobile you refer to in WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW is a car that I imagined I might like to ride in myself, even if I had not quite figured out what happens when you are sitting on a cushy rug in meditation posture and the driver brakes or accelerates suddenly!
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My previous car (in the mid and late 90s) was a tiny Honda Civic hatchback, and several times in morning rush-hour traffic of the 405, I had fantasized about a periscope... Eventually however, I settled for the more available solution of the day - a Jeep!

Ingeniously innovative and quite hilarious solutions, as usual, Steve! :)
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I always loved your Yogamobile design, myself!
Heck, I didn't even know what yoga was back then but I'd stare at that book page for hours imagining the fun of it.
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Lulu: If there is any "propaganda" in this blog, it is definitely not an argument in favor of small cars. It should have been obvious – and if it wasn't it's my fault for not stating it more clearly – that there are problems when tall, heavy vehicles occupy the same road system as small econocars. The disparities are too great! In a future blog I plan to offer ideas for separate thoroughfares that isolate vehicles based on their size and mass.
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