May 28, 2009 A good product must be perfectly adapted to its market - and the Spira looks like an excellent fit for the chaotic conditions of South-East Asian roads. This odd little three-wheel two-seater weighs only 300-odd pounds (130kg) - that's because it uses a super-lightweight reinforced foam for 90 percent of the bodywork. It gets well over 100mpg from its 110cc engine, it's light enough to lift by hand, and the foam shell has huge safety benefits, both for the occupants and for the legions of pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists that swarm the roads of Thailand. Oh, and it floats.
Anyone who has been to Thailand or other parts of South-East Asia will know that the roads in that part of the world hold a very special kind of horror for Western visitors. Road rules and etiquette simply don't exist. It's every man for himself and if you're on a motorbike when a truck blasts its horn, you'd better get the hell out of the way.
The chaotic conditions might provide a buzz for tourists, but they have deadly consequences; globally, about 3,600 people die in road accidents every day. According to RoadPeace.org, more than half of these deaths occur between South-East Asia and the Western Pacific, which includes China.
In Thailand, at least, the vast majority of these deaths aren't car or truck drivers - they're pedestrians, motorcyclists and bicycle riders. Which makes it wonderful to see vehicles like the Spira being developed that put not only the occupants' safety at the forefront, but the safety of other road users.
The Spira has been developed by its inventor Lon Ballard, largely around the properties of reinforced foam. Apart from the engine, wheels and lightweight aluminium frame, about 90 percent of the Spira's body is made from 6-inch thick foam, which can itself be made from renewable sources, like soybeans. The layers of foam are reinforced with fiberglass strips for extra strength.
The foam is so light that the entire weight of the Spira has been kept down to 302lb ( 137kg). For that you get a fully enclosed two-seater, with a 110cc scooter engine and three wheels, that will do 70mph comfortably on the freeway. The millions of air cells in the foam act as tiny airbags in a collision, giving both the occupants, and whatever they've crashed into, a good degree of protection.
The pointed front-end of the Spira is chosen for its aerodynamics and safety, although we're not sure how much we agree with the philosophy that "in a crash it is best to deflect and roll as in Judo", particularly when you're rolling on a crowded, chaotic Thai freeway. Still, crash testing is high on the priority list for the manufacturer.
If the thought of getting around in Thailand's humid heat in a fully enclosed vessel worries you, and the small slit of window you can open doesn't convince you, the entire roof of the Spira can be taken off to make it a sort of convertible. But then, you've got to leave the top at home - and you'd better have a strong noggin, because there's no roll bar on the prototype to support the "Judo roll" front-impact philosophy. Best to get something in place for that, I reckon.
A further unexpected benefit of a lightweight foam body is buoyancy. The Spira will happily float - which is great for all those occasions when your car ploughs into the water. It's not truly amphibious because there's no water drive system and the road-going componentry wouldn't be too fond of the drink in the long run - but still, I guess you could pack some oars, and there's no reason why a fully amphibious version can't be built sometime down the track.
Economical enough to enter the X-Prize contest
The Spira's 110cc Yamaha Mio engine is economical enough on a scooter, but with the foam body's aerodynamic shape and light weight, cruising economy figures go through the roof, achieving well over 100mpg - or as little as 2.35 litres/100km.
Of course, once you hit those figures, it is eligible to enter the Automotive X-Prize competition, which is exactly what has been done. A race-prepped Spira has been entered, which means submitting a plan showing at least 10,000 vehicles can be made a year.
We wish Spira's developers the best of luck in the X-Prize competition, in safety testing and in getting this vehicle off the ground and into production. It looks like an economical, fuel-friendly way to increase safety for a lot of motorists and pedestrians on some of the world's most dangerous roads.