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MAX Update No. 40: Is MAX Safe? Is MAX Safe Enough?

2/2/2010 1:27:02 PM

Tags: MAX, 100 mpg, safety, roll bar

Awhile back, MOTHER EARTH NEWS got a terrific letter from a man in Michigan with 20 years experience as a powertrain engineer at one of the major automakers. He pointed out that MAX, as it stands now, could not be sold in the United States as a production car, and he sure is right. One reason is safety.

If homebuilt and experimental cars had to pass the same standards as mass production cars, the MAX project would’ve never left the drawing board. Of course that’s true of Detroit’s projects as well — the big guys typically have test “mules” on the road before they’ve done their crash testing for that model.

With MAX, well, I’ve already done more crash testing that I’ve wanted to. And although MAX squeaked by with a D-, and although MAX has been improved since then, and although other improvements are in the works, I doubt I’ll ever call MAX a “safe” car.

Colin Chapman, who designed the Lotus Seven (which was the structural inspiration for MAX), called it a “four wheeled motorcycle” and I think that’s just about right. And yet 50 years of racing experience have shown this style of car to be reasonably safe on the racetrack, where high-speed, multi-car accidents are commonplace. Check out the video below of a Caterham 7 (the successor to the Lotus) leaping and tumbling in a race at Castle Combe (“the prettiest village in England”).

Okay, that’s a racing accident, and nothing MAX is likely to experience. Racecars have full roll cages and are considerably more robust on top than street cars, and the driver might not have survived the final topside-first impact with the wall without that roll cage. As it was, he got a broken arm out of the deal. The point is, these cars are pretty strong, and I would rather go through a crash like that in MAX than in many mass-produced, federally approved automobiles — like the Cadillac XLR Roadster, for example.

The Cadillac XLR, like MAX, is a two-seat sports car, but the XLR has 10 times more power is three times heavier (with only 19 mpg). There is one situation in which the XLR has a safety advantage over MAX: If MAX and an XLR crashed into each other, the Cadillac would probably win.

And here we come to a question of personal preference, and perhaps personal ethics. In MAX, we have a car that plays well with other kids its own size, and is safer than most when it’s on its own (in my opinion). But it’s a jungle out there and the water is full of sharks. How much bigger and heavier and thirstier should our cars be, if all it gains us is a higher ranking in the car-to-car impact wars?

I doubt I’ll solve the problem of road rage, or the my-car-can-beat-up-your-car mentality so common on the streets today. But by withdrawing myself from the alpha car competition, I am toning things down a bit. As I do when riding a motorcycle, I pay more attention to the cars around me when I drive MAX than when I drive a big car, and I never squabble over who has the right of way. I’m glad to live in a country in which I’m allowed to make my “small is beautiful” statement by building and driving my own car. However, I wouldn’t mind if the rules required a written warning on the right side of the dashboard, like the one the FAA requires on homebuilt experimental aircraft. Here it is, word for word, but with “aircraft” replaced by “automobile.”

Passenger Warning: THIS AUTOMOBILE IS AMATEUR-BUILT AND DOES NOT COMPLY WITH THE FEDERAL SAFETY REGULATIONS FOR STANDARD AUTOMOBILES.

 



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Post a comment below.

 

robertdotjohnson
6/27/2011 2:25:19 AM
what states has the max been sucessfully regristered in so far ?

RustyLugNut_4
2/24/2010 12:19:04 PM
UncleRice, The deer infested potholed path you traverse is not the path most people drive so, manufacturers are not going to design all their vehicles to thrive in such an environment. Max was not designed to excel in such an environment. He was designed to meet or exceed 100 mpg. There are vehicles that do meet your requirements for frontal animal impacts along with poor surface road worthiness. You just have to realize such a vehicle will not be as fuel thrifty as max. My son is looking for an old Land Rover to convert to Mercedes turbo diesel power - to be run on veg oil. He wants a rough and tumble vehicle that is cheap and easy to fix and is economical on fuel (he runs 70% veggie oil with some diesel to meet the road tax issues). Maybe you should look into this type of vehicle instead of bemoaning the lack of Military Grade Minivans on the general market.

UncleRice
2/22/2010 7:48:51 AM
< RustyLugNut > In all due fairness, when it comes to the survival of the occupants of the car during a wreck, the new cars do well. The problem is that most cars seem to be designed to look pretty and bath you in surround sound while driving on a perfect road surface where deer, darkness, rain, and fog never intrude and where repairs take place in a garage equipped with tool costing more than the car. For those of use who face 50 miles of kamikaze deer and potholes every time we turn the ignition key, these inexpensive cars are putting us in the poorhouse. While 100mpg is certainly useful, I believe the ultimate value of a MAX variant would be in it's durability and serviceability. You could build it with the ability to shake off deer impacts, to take the beating of pot holes, and to be fixed inside a couple hours with a box of hand tools. Of course an infrared camera and an LED display above the steering wheel so I could see that deer or pedestrian in fashionable black in the foggy rainy night when I have high beams in my face would be nice too, but that's just my extravagant side talking.

RustyLugNut_4
2/17/2010 12:07:58 PM
Jeff, This discussion is pertinent to the 100mpg car. Vehicle Mass and Aero Drag are often times increased to provide safety to the occupants. Max needs to minimize these areas. Safety now becomes a compromise. Luckily as a Kit constructor, one can choose the level of compromise in construction, design and operation. My wife used to be one of those "cutesy girls" who populate trade shows, and she would drive 10s of thousands of miles a year. She burned through two Geo metros in that time period. I hated her driving that thing. The love of my life (who is accident prone) in a 1300 lb vehicle, sharing the road with 5000 lb SUVs. But, she loved the "extra paycheck" when her mileage reimbursements assumed an 18mpg vehicle and her Metro was pulling down 45 mpg. I now use the cobbled together parts to run a Metro as a parts chaser for the shop so that there is no need to use a 5200 lb work truck to get a 20 lb box of hardware. I drive it like a motorcycle. It is a compromise that is worth the risk to me. When these 20 yr old Metro bodies are beyond repair, my son and I want to put the engine/transmission into a Max Clone. That would be a cool parts chaser!

RustyLugNut_4
2/17/2010 11:31:10 AM
As a counterpoint to UncleRice, The "tin foil" construction of a twenty year old Dodge Mini-van saved my parents in a head on collision. They walked away with only minor glass cuts from a 70+ mph collision. So did the driver of the Honda who hit them. On both vehicles, the light weight cosmetic structure crumpled, secondary supports gave way, and the engine/transmission subframe buckled under the car. They did what they were designed to do - give way and absorb energy so that the air bags could do the rest along with seat belts. As to brake line rusting, that is a maintenance issue after a 20 year duty life. Most under carriage parts are galvanized to a G60 rating for salt spray tests. If you live in an area of salted winter roads and you do not rinse your undercarriage regularly, the highly concentrated salt slush will reduce that G60 rating down to about . . . G20. If you want such niceties as stainless steel brake lines, then you need to move up and pay for a vehicle that does offer them. Like my 25 year old Mercedes. Don't blame the big three for trying to reduce costs and offer a reasonably priced vehicle - that is their job. The government then makes sure the makers provide a reasonably safe vehicle for that price. Then, it is our job to operate and maintain those vehicles for the time they are on the road. As to the safety of Max? Look at that crash video! If Jack, or any other constructor of a Lotus, really wanted to, he could strengthen the frame.

UncleRice
2/12/2010 10:29:07 AM
I recently replaced the door on my minivan. The door was little more than a tin foil box the would flex radically under the pathetic force of my skinny computer nerd arms and would bend up when I slammed the door. Yet this 20 year old tin foil construct by Dodge passed the government safety tests. My brother almost managed to stop for a deer last year in West Montana. The plastic bumper came loose on the drivers side and the structural parts holding the radiator back against the engine. He limped it back to a small town and hooked a tie down strap to a wooden post and the bent structural member and reefed it back into place by hand. Yet this ten year old tin foil construct made by Dodge passed the government safety tests. I have had no less than two Chevys and a Ford loose their brakes, because the brake lines rusted through, yet these death traps passed the government safety tests. I turn on the TV and hear about cars less than a year old that loose their brakes and race out of control, yet these cars passed the government safety tests. Experiences like these tell me that the government safety standards exist to spend tax money and make cars more expensive, not to make us safe. If they really want to make cars safer, then the brake line need to be stainless so they are the last part of the car to rust out. The car needs to be able to take a white tail in either end at 60 without more than a scuff. Until then, they get no respect from me.

Jack McCornack
2/7/2010 8:28:57 PM
AdrianH, Barbara J, Neil L, you said it better than I did. I don't want such stickers, but if that was the rule, I'd tolerate it. I do think they're a good idea in homebuilt airplanes because riding in a private airplane is an unusual experience for most folks, and many can't tell a homebuilt from a storebought. This has never been a problem with MAX. No passenger has mistaken it for a normal car and I don't think it needs a warning sticker to make that point. Most product warning stickers are inspired by failure-to-warn lawsuits, and every time I walk into a restroom and see the towel dispenser has a "Warning: Do Not Stick Your Head in This Towel Dispenser" sticker, or a lawnmower with a Shut Off Mower Before Sharpening The Blade sticker, I fear for us all. And jeff, I fully agree, and so does my editor. He and I were just talking about this. Two posts in a row without MAX is at least one too many, and it won't happen again. After all, MAX is the star of the MAX & Jack Show.

Neil Larkins
2/6/2010 9:51:46 AM
Excellent points, Jack, yet I also agree with Adrian: If we start putting stickers on our vehicles, where does it end. Perhaps a one-size-fits-all approach..."Driving this vehicle can be hazardous to your health." Neil aka Justajo

jeff dean
2/5/2010 7:26:41 PM
This conversation is fine, but like last months subject, both are distracting from what I thought was the original idea of building a car that approaches 100 mpg. Personally I'd like to see more on building and testing. I hope Jack hasn't been hi-jacked (no pun intended) by big oil. I'm sure big oil doesn't want us getting better mileage and buying less of their products. jeff

BARBARA GILLIHAN
2/5/2010 10:36:09 AM
I agree... where will it end? Why isn't common sense safety when driving enough? I recently saw a car selling for $2,500... going to be sold in India by TaTa motors. It looked cute and safe enough for local driving. Why do we have to have all the bells and whistles on our cars to bring the price up? Some of us don't drive on interstates. We just want an inexpensive car with moderate safety features. We're in line waiting for such a vehicle.

AdrianH
2/2/2010 4:56:17 PM
An interesting article on the general safety of this style car. Having recently got my own kit on the road and driven a few hundred miles this winter in rain and snow, I also find my driving to be defensive when in the car. You certainly become more aware of other vehicles around you and then drive appropriately. I am not sure what tests are done on these vehicles in different countries, but can say that in the UK, our cars have to pass Inspectorate testing (SVA now IVA) to ascertain a level of build quality and performance of braking, suitable lighting and other such systems on the car. What is not there, as you mention, are any of the impact tests required for production cars, and in a collision with a normal road car a 600 kg car will generally be worst off. But I would say I think you have a better chance then that of a motorcyclist. Do you want a health warning to be displayed in a home built car, I say no, but if the only answer is yes then where would you stop with such warnings, would you have them on motorcycles, push bikes or even before you walk out of your house in the morning, in each instance you are susceptible to vehicle impacts. Cheers Adrian







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