Thursday, September 10, 2009

Smart Car, Urban Legends, Viral Email, and Critical Thinking

I received an email from a colleague the other day, with the subject line "...Want a Smart Car?..." Accompanied by two images:

The juxtaposition of the Smart Car with the Brooklyn Bridge and the subject line "Want a Smart Car?" made me think at first that this was a gag. "Hey, want to buy a Smart? How 'bout this bridge I can sell you, too?"

The second image purported to be a Smart car smashed between two dump trucks in a recent accident in Jefferson Parish, LA. It also had the added commentary: A Snow Flake in Hades has a better chance than this guy did. I Think I'll Pass on the UN-Smart Car.

This particular email is apparently a recent development, but has already hit blogs and message forums, leading to self-riteousness from all sides that borders on obscene, and certainly unseemly.

The fact that this was obviously a chain email, destined to rebound in the infinite echo chamber of the intarwebs, combined with the utter smugness of the commentary, and the fact that I am an engineer who professes to some critical faculties, led me to investigate this just a bit more. Join me as we deconstruct this a bit...

As I usually do with such fantastic stories, I checked it against  The image and the event are corroborated, but the vehicle is actually a Ford Escape hybrid - a mid-sized SUV - not a Smart.  Checking images of an Escape shows that the wheels, at least, are the same as those in the crushed car.  They fit better, anyway, than do thewheels of a Smart.  Accoridng to snopes, the vehicle was apparently not centered between the trucks, so the driver's side was not as badly smashed in the impact, and the driver survived without grave injury.

I've seen crash-test videos of Smart cars (check youtube). They tend to show that the frame is an exceptionally rigid cage that can survive many impacts without buckling.  However, being extra rigid and a tiny car, it means that there are no crumple zones to absorb the impact. The car tends to rebound off whatever it hit (or hit it), so the occupants end up getting tossed around at high accelerations in an exceptionally rigid cage.  I'd rather not predict the results.

I wonder if the driver in the above accident would have fared better or worse had he been on a motorcycle.  Better by not being crushed in a twisted can of metal, and possibly tossed away from the impact; worse by not being in a can to absorb the impact for him, and being ejected from the impact.  I doubt the smug writer of the original email would have been so quick to denigrate someone, a person of true leather-clad grit, who while cruisin' around on his Hog, just happened to have the dumb luck of being pancaked between two American-steel dump trucks doing the manly work of reconstructing the gulf coast.

I guess in the case of a rock and a hard place, and outweighed by perhaps 20:1, things just don't look good for anyone.  For what it's worth, here's the Mythbuster's take on an ordinary car being smashed (off-center) between two 50 mph semis.  It didn't do so well, either; nothing would except, perhaps, an M1-A1 Abrams.

Anyway, getting back to the story. I've never really thought that highly of Smart cars. Debunking this chain email hasn't changed my view on them, either. The moral of the story, for any that haven't yet realized it, isn't about car endorsements: don't forward chain emails without first doing a little poking around. is a great place to start - they've seen it all, and usually have done a lot of the legwork. The above information I found in all of about five minutes of curious Googling. Thinking on this and many other forwarded emails I've seen, I've realized that the more the email is trying to make someone appear stupid, the more skeptical one ought to be of it.

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