We drive the 'soft, safe, sexy' Spira4u foam car in Detroit

Lightweight EV Rethinks What It Means To Protect

The furthest distance that a foam-based Spira4u electric vehicle has traveled is 481 miles on one charge. According to the Spira4u website, this trip was done in a special bamboo Spira4u that designer Lon Ballard drove from Santa Rosa, Laguna to Ballesteros (Cagayan Province) in the Philippines in July 2012. In total, Lon and his brother Doug and the rest of the Spira4u team have put over 15,000 test miles onto this completely unique vehicle. I added a few more outside the Detroit Auto Show last week and, as you can see in the video above, it was quite an experience. Despite the car's catchy slogan – "Soft, Safe, Sexy" – I did not feel particularly protected for the few minutes we spent behind the wheel. Excuse me, the tiller.

You see, the Spira4u doesn't share a lot of parts with any other car on the road. Instead, this is a sort of enclosed motorcycle. With foam. It only has three wheels, there's the aforementioned steering tiller and it's covered with a coreboard material, laminated plastic and fiberglass. Why would anyone design a car like this and spend "a couple million dollars" of his own money to build it? Well, to be soft, safe and sexy.

After thinking about making vehicles safer since 1975, Ballard was inspired to create the first Spira in 2008 after the birth of his daughter. "We're in this to save lives," he told AutoblogGreen in Detroit last week. "And to reduce energy costs and make things green. Still, the number one killer of people from 5 to 35 in the world is vehicle accidents.* And most people who are killed in vehicle accidents aren't inside the car. They're pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists." The answer, he believes, is a light, foam-covered car that would only cause minor injuries when it hits someone, compared to a 4,000-pound car made of metal.

A lighter car is also inherently more efficient, and we first talked to Lon and his brother Doug when Spira4u gained some attention at the Automotive X-Prize five years ago (it didn't win). After that competition ended, Ballard went back to Thailand to improve the car. He found a coreboard material to use in the chassis and built four prototypes in the Philippines and added an electric powertrain option. The Ballard brothers got motorcycle parts from China and took the resin out of the exterior, along with a major redesign. Add up all of the parts now, and the EV weighs 520 pounds while the gas model comes in at 440 pounds. That makes the Spira4u easy to pick up with one hand and park it on its tail – just what the urban commuter has been asking for, no?

The all-electric Spira4u has an estimated 300 MPGe and a top speed of 60 miles per hour. It also has a range of 55 miles for the $9,000 base model with a 5-kWh li-ion phosphate battery pack. To bump that up to a 95-mile range, there may be a 7.5-kWh battery option that will cost $11,000. A top-of-the-line Spira4u with the largest pack (10 kWh) will get 145 miles and cost $13,000. (Note: I got these numbers wrong in the video. There is no 15 kWh option.) The gas version has a $6,000 MSRP and a top speed of a little over 50 mph and an estimated 80 mpg.

What does all that get you? "We consider the market for this to be commuter, city and country roads, but not so much the interstate," Ballard said. "It's the perfect car for young people." To find out if the market agrees, Ballard is in the middle of a tour of US motorcycle and auto shows to try and generate interest from motorcycle dealers to sell the Spira4u. There are over 30 of the vehicles built already, and more are being made in China. Ballard said he hopes to build 1,000 vehicles in the first major batch, and said that could be done in the next few months. Whether or not dealers bite, Ballard is confident that the project will continue. After all the time and money he's spent to get here, "I could put another $10 million in, no problem," he said.

* The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute says that for the entire global population, "traffic deaths account for about two percent of all fatalities from all causes worldwide."

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