Is Smart the Most Sustainable Car on the Planet?
All anyone really ever talks about when it comes to automobiles is what's coming out of the tailpipe. But fuel type is only one aspect of a car's sustainability. For the better part of three weeks, I've been driving around the country in a smart promoting my new book Urban Green. The car company is a sponsor of my nationwide book tour. I've headed out into America to visit more than 20 colleges and universities to engage millennials to discover what they really think about sustainability and the future of green. Along the way, I've gotten a real-world view at just how smart smart is by logging more than 2800 miles and spending not so much money to do it. With a list of other green features such as high recyclable percentage, intelligent design, well-thought out life-cycle, good fuel economy and affordability, I'm starting to wonder if it is the most sustainable car on the planet.
Image Credit: Courtesy of smart usa
Let me be clear, I don't own a car. The smart I've been driving is on loan from the Mercedes-Benz, the parent company of smart. I moved to New York City in 2000 so I could get rid of my then-red GEO Storm. Since then, I've depended on my two legs, a Trek road bike and a massively developed mass transit system to get me around from day to day. But when I published my book Urban Green: Architecture for the Future - I knew if I wanted to get the opinion of more than New Yorkers, I'd need to get into a car to do it. So I teamed up with smart to visit a long list of higher education institutions to engage the leaders of tomorrow about green buildings, renewable energy, smart grids, electric cars, habitat restoration, biodiversity, urban design and infrastructure. The result has been that I have a brand new opinion about options for transportation.
First of all, the eco-stats for smart is something any green designer could love. Environmental protection is one of the fundamental company goals of smart. The outer skin of the car is scratch-resistant plastic and 100% recyclable. To make the recycling of the car easier, they constructed it in modules for easy dismantling. Harmful substances like lead, chromium, mercury and cadmium are barred from the production process. In the end, only 15% of the car is not recyclable so that 85% of it can have a second life.
Smart is powder-coated - a type of finish that is applied as a free-flowing, dry powder and does not require a solvent. Generally regarded as the most environmentally-friendly painting method in the automotive industry, powder coating uses 40% less energy than conventional painting methods with zero solvent emissions. Nearly 100% of the surplus powder is reused for painting and no water is consumed or wasted.
At each stop, I get people to test drive the smart - I try to always have someone that has never rode in one so I can get their honest opinion before and after. Two things always come up: space and safety. Everyone thinks that the cars are going to be cramped and too small. When they get into the car, they are usually surprised at how roomy the inside is. There's plenty of knee space and leg room, and with lots of windows and a moon roof, the interior feels open too. Because I'm out on the road for weeks at a time, I have to take a ton of stuff with me. My standard luggage includes a big bag of cloths, a couple of suits, laptop, three pairs of shoes (running, dress and casual) and a basket of food because there's not a ton of good options for healthy food along the interstates and highways of America. All of it fits neatly in the hatchback truck behind the seats.
Safety is the other aspect people ask me for details. Smart has developed a special component called the tridion safety cell - think of it as the German version of a rollbar. The cell is steel housing that combines longitudinal and crosswise framing that displaces impact forces over a large area of the car. There's lots of crash test videos on youtube.com to see the effectiveness of the cage design. The car also comes with eight airbags.
The most important features of the car for most people is about cost...the cost of the car itself, the cost of maintenance and the cost of gasoline. The product data will tell you that you can get 41 miles to the gallon in a smart. In traveling approximately 2812 miles in one during my tour, I have actually clocked more nearly 55 miles per gallon. Smart is not a hybrid, so the gas mileage is so high due to the light-weight and engineering of the engine and other components. They do have an electric car, which I've not driven. I'm not a big fan of electric vehicles (something I layout in great detail in my book). Performance of more than 40 miles to the gallon gives the car good marks with emissions. Several people thinking it was an alternative fueled vehicle have asked me about the availability of mechanics that can fix a problem. When I tell them it's a standard gasoline engine and doesn't need special maintenance requirements, they start to see it as a real opportunity to own.
There are a few drawbacks. First, it only fits two - not a problem for some folks. If you have a small child, there is no back seat for the required car seat. Having a new baby, I was bummed about not being able to take my family for a spin. It can also be a little noisy when driving, especially the air-conditioner. It tends to get hot and cold quick, so I'm always turning the heater or cooling on and off lots. But for its negatives, plenty of positives remain. It makes parallel parking a no-brainer. I've had people stare in disbelief at the smallest of parking spaces and then applauded when the car fits in. The steering is great, and turns three-point turns into two-point turns.
I'm excited to be driving around in a smart. It's given me a chance to introduce people to more options that are less expensive and can help us bridge to a better world. And because I have to pay for my own gasoline during the tour, the great gas mileage is money I can keep in the bank.
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