Needed: A New People’s Car

22Mar11

For many people in the world, cars are too large and expensive to buy, repair, maintain, and operate.  The notion of one large, complicated device that is completely out of the owner’s hands — that arrives as a single package and must be replaced as such — seems terribly rigid and old-fashioned.

Instead, there should be a seamless upgrade path.  A person can start with a moped, swap out the engine and other parts, and advance to a motorcycle.  Swap out the rear end and have a trike.  Replace the front end to make it a dune buggy.  Add a cowl to have a mini-car.  Upgrade to an electric motor to have a Smart Car.  Extend the frame to have a sedan.  Replace a rear body section to make it a truck.

It’s not so much that every random person would have the tools and ability to do all this replacing.  But with good engineering, it wouldn’t have to be hard or expensive for a local mechanic to do so.  As cities condense inward from suburbs, this may be all the transportation that many people need.

The concept can be developed.  There could be an aftermarket for customized parts (e.g., fancy colors, additional features) that bolt in or snap on at the same connection points as the stock upgrades from the manufacturer:  different motors, longer frame extensions, etc.  Flexibility of attachment would foster ideas.  For instance, front and rear passenger seats might be contained in a removable module that could be replaced with a sleeper attachment for long drives, lowered and hooked up from the ceiling of one’s garage or rented from U-Haul.  Replace the mini-camper with a tank to make it a water hauler, for agriculturally inclined individuals or amateur firefighters.  Replace the water tank with a mini-kitchen, for people who want to sell or serve food without having to manhandle a pushcart.  Replace the kitchen with a traveling office.  Install a hitch and computerized following software to form a train of such vehicles, towed behind a train-like engine unit with redundant engineers, so that just one or two drivers can shepherd a dozen of them across the desert while everybody else sleeps.

A car can do many things.  Present notions of the automobile are far too constricting.  Here’s hoping that someone takes a cue from the personal computer and begins to enable the public, starting with hobbyists, to expand and customize concepts of meaningful transportation.

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