In the 60s cult TV show Gilligan’s Island, after years of being stranded on an island, the Professor designs a working car made of bamboo and powered by coconuts. Though the idea is intended for laughs, especially for those attending an auto college, today there are few limitations on what could potentially become a fully functioning vehicle. In fact, the first model of the Spira4U foam car was actually designed using bamboo in the Philippines and was successful in making a long trek across the island country.
At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a foam car could possibly be road safe. After all, foam is mostly known as a material for shipping electronics, or as a children’s puzzle toy – almost never used in the auto industry. But designer Lon Ballard’s strangely attractive little number, the Spira4U, boasts about its safety. “Soft, safe and sexy,” says the brand tagline for what some might consider a curio at first glance.
Core Design and Safety
The Spira4U might best be described as an enclosed three-wheel motorcycle covered in foam, with the typical steering column and windows. The foam is specially laminated in plastic and fiberglass. Ballard reportedly spent millions of his own dollars producing the prototype of this car.
Dreaming about ways to make vehicles safer since 1975, Ballard has dedicated his life to an auto career promoting safe driving. He designed the first Spira4u in 2008 after the birth of his first daughter. Using his automotive background and the help of a team with auto technician training, he set out to design a car that would prevent pedestrian injuries. “We’re in this to save lives,” he quotes.
Most unnatural deaths between the ages of 5 and 35 are caused by car accidents, and the victims are rarely passengers or drivers. More commonly, they are pedestrians and cyclists. Ballard believes the solution to this problem is making the car’s exterior lighter and less impactful than steel or aluminum, hence the foam design. The foam is expected, should someone get struck, to only cause light injuries. The car only weighs 440 pounds.
A lighter car is also more efficient. The car is, of course, electric. Currently, the furthest distance the Spira4U has travelled on a single charge is 481 miles.
The Spira4u garnered some attention 5 years ago at the Automotive X-Prize – a competition for safe vehicle inventions – however the invention didn’t win. After, Ballard and his brother went to Thailand for a massive redesign, and then built four prototypes in the Philippines. The Ballard brothers even got motorcycle parts from China, and brought a new prototype of the Spira4u to the 2015 Detroit Auto show this past January.
Where You Should Drive It
Ballard intends to market the foam car as a “commute, city or country roads” car but certainly not an interstate vehicle. Ideally, it’s the perfect car for a young couple. The most expensive model pricing is only $9,000, with a top speed of 60 miles per hour.
What improvements could be made to the Spira4u to make it functional as an interstate vehicle?