MAX Update No. 44: Responses to Sharp Criticisms

Reader Contribution by Staff

The crew at MOTHER EARTH NEWS received this letter about MAX, my response follows.

As I read your article about the MAX car (Our DIY Car: The Quest for 100 MPG), I just had to laugh at the statements and outlandish assumptions that are being made. I am an automotive powertrain engineer and have worked at one of the major automotive OEMs for the last 20 years. I can tell you with some authority that this project is nothing but a high school experiment. The statement from the author “If I can build a 100-mpg car using off-the-shelf technology, the major automakers should be able to do the same, if not even better” shows the lack of understanding people have about the modern vehicle. 

My company could easily build a vehicle that could get 100 mpg and probably cost about $5,000 — no problem. But you have to ask: 

1) Does it meet all regulations from the DOT (Department of Transportation), CARB (California Air Resources Board), EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and a myriad of other safety regulatory agencies?

2) Is it safe to drive on public roads? Would you put your family in it?

3) Is it saleable — does anyone besides a select few engineers want to buy the thing? 

The Kubota diesel engine MAX uses certainly does not meet any tailpipe emission standards. There is no catalytic converter on the MAX. The U.S. emission standards for diesels are very strict, even stricter than those of the European Union. All diesel vehicles sold in the United States starting in 2009 must use ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel and have a virtual chemical lab in the exhaust system to meet emissions. 

Does the MAX have the mandated air bags? Can it sustain a 15-mph crash? What about occupant protection requirements for side impacts, vehicle rollover and rear-end collisions? Any built-in crumple zones? All these items (and there are a lot more) add weight and costs to a vehicle that can be sold in the United States. MAX meets none of these regulations. 

Is MAX a safe vehicle to drive in traffic or on a long trip? There are no bumpers on the vehicle to protect the structure from being damaged, much less the occupants. I see the fuel tank hanging off the back of the vehicle. What happens when a pickup truck loses its brakes and rear ends MAX? Requirements state that the fuel tank must be protected by a structural part of the vehicle and is able to sustain a 30-mph crash without rupturing. 

How easily does MAX rollover in an emergency situation? Does it have stability control, traction control or antilock brakes? 

The author states that MAX goes “from zero to 60 mph in 20 seconds” and he is “disappointed to see performance get such high billing in a fuel economy contest’ (the Auto X Prize). Let’s see — zero to 60 in 20 seconds means that the MAX pulling out of Burger King to get up to the 45 mph speed limit will take about 15 seconds and 520 feet. That is a long time and a lot of ground to cover. That’s not a very safe way to get into even a moderate traffic flow. It’s not performance, its safety. 

Could we sell MAX? People want a vehicle with the basic options and that seats at least four passengers. Usually a four-door coupe with a full roof, roll-down windows, climate control (heat/AC/defrost), radio and interior lights. They want a sealed trunk or back hatch. If a trunk, then an emergency release in case someone gets locked inside (government mandated). All of these features add cost and weight to the vehicle. They also want it to cruise at 70 mph on the highway and have good acceleration to get on/off the highway. Good traction and stability in all types of weather is a necessity. Does MAX meet these requirements — the basic requirements of a modern vehicle? Absolutely not! 

I have seen other articles on vehicles like MAX and the point always seems to be ‘If I can get 100-mpg why can’t the automakers?’ There’s a notion that the automakers are in a conspiracy with the big oil companies. Are you kidding? If automakers could produce a 100-mpg vehicle that would meet all government regulations and be affordable and marketable, they would do it in a heartbeat. 

The MAX project should be shown for what it is — a vehicle that may achieve 100 mpg, but does so by rejecting all regulations on emissions and safety, creating an unsafe vehicle even in minor traffic situations. Its design is one that 99.9 percent of the U.S. population would not want. MAX is a one-off vehicle experiment that in no way compares to an actual modern-day vehicle. 

Richard Kacel
Waterford, Michigan

Richard, I agree with many of your observations, but only halfway agree with your conclusions. For example, what’s so great about an “actual modern day vehicle”? And what’s so bad about a “high school experiment”? I think our differences come from our backgrounds. 

I was a high school shop teacher for four years and MAX is designed so it can be built by high school students and other amateur car builders. As I wrote in my first MAX article, “I think any of the big automakers could win the Auto X Prize if they got serious about it,” but it looks like the West Philly Hybrid X Team (high school students) is way ahead of them. The days of inspired high school students (and other amateur experimenters) are not over yet. 

Does MAX meet government regulations? You bet! Lucky for us, the government regulations for a car you build yourself are not as involved as the regulations for production cars. MAX is already cleaner than the majority of diesel passenger cars on America’s roads today … most of those are ’70s and ’80s cars from Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz and they wouldn’t meet 2010 production car emissions regulations either. Mandated air bags? They’re not mandated on home-built cars, and they wouldn’t be mandated on production cars either if everybody wore five point racing harnesses like those in MAX. 

I’d say MAX gets a nod on all safety issues except side impact protection, and we’re working on that as part of the streamlined body project. No bumper? It has a fiberglass nose that’s cheaper than any bumper of any 2010 car in America, and that’s only the first of MAX’s “crumple zones.” 

You asked what would happen when a pickup truck loses its brakes and rear ends MAX. Well, I doubt it will be a home-built pickup truck, because homebuilders tend to take their maintenance pretty seriously. So far, I’ve only been rear-ended once and it was by a factory-built passenger car. The driver swore she was only going 30 mph. I was going zero and was stopped behind a van, which was stopped for pedestrians. The fuel tank didn’t rupture because (even though the tank is visible) it is protected by a tubular steel structure. 

I wouldn’t call MAX a modern day vehicle, it’s more like a newly built 50-year-old vehicle. I don’t think MAX is dangerously slow, I think it’s just slow. I don’t think any driver behind me has had to touch the brakes, much less be endangered, but I’ll admit I wait for big gaps between cars before I pull out in traffic. This sort of conversation usually ends with the other guy, smiling smugly, saying, ‘Well, maybe it’s not dangerous for you, but it’d be dangerous the way I drive.’

Then I usually say don’t bother to apply for a job at UPS because their vans are even slower than MAX. And MAX has superb stability, rollover resistance, and braking capability (not just good, but superb) without needing stability control, traction control or antilock brakes to make up for design deficiencies. 

I think you’re right about what people want in a car, but that’s most people, not all people. If 99.9 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t want a MAX, that still leaves about 300,000 people who might. Divide that by 1,000 for the people who don’t have the money and/or space for another car, the people who don’t have the self confidence to tackle this big of a project, and the people who can’t convert “want” to “do” unless they have somebody (a car salesman, perhaps?) egging them on. That leaves a 300 person niche market — not enough to attract a major manufacturer, but enough to keep Kinetic Vehicles busy making parts for them. I don’t think MAX is going to be a one-off vehicle, we have beta testers making MAX variants right now (one Kubota powered, two electrics, and one with a Geo Metro engine) and depending on their feedback, MAX plans may soon be available for general distribution. 

I doubt MAX has Detroit quaking in its boots. MAX might, however, help show some manufacturer (though maybe not a manufacturer in Detroit) that there is indeed a market for a small, efficient, no-frills automobile, conceived that way from the get-go — perhaps a small market, but a market worth serving.

Browse previous MAX Updates.
Check out the 100-mpg Car page for all things MAX.