The Spira Saves Lives Because It's Encased in Foam

The Spira Saves Lives Because It's Encased in Foam

Imagine a vehicle that is completely encased in protective foam, so that when it collides with a pedestrian, cyclist or other vehicle, it bounces off and minimizes impact.

Remember those old bumper cars at carnivals and fairs? Look ahead 10-20 years from now and think about a world where self-driving vehicles simply bounce off of each other, thereby reducing severity, saving lives and changing the collision repair industry as a result.

The inventor of this vehicle is Lon Ballard of San Diego, CA, and he calls it the Spira4u. It is a three-wheel motorcycle for two people with a plastic and fiberglass chassis encased in eight inches of foam up front and four inches on both sides. It looks like something out of the old Jetsons cartoon, yet with a certain sense of style. In fact, Ballard's slogan for the Spira is "Soft, Safe, Sexy."

Available in either two versions--gas-powered and electric--the Spira has a range of 200 miles (gas) and 140 miles (EV) with top speeds of 50 mph and 80 mpg with the gas version and a top speed of approximately 75 mph with its electric cousin. Both are amazingly lightweight at 440 lbs. (gas) and 550 lbs. (EV).

Ballard sees a definite need for a vehicle like the Spira now and in the future. "In 1920, only two billion people roamed this planet, and now, seven billion people want vehicles," Ballard said. "The pollution and material production will sicken us. Vehicles are already the #1 killer of people in the prime of their lives (ages 5-40). The Spira weighs less because it contains fewer parts, which means it uses less energy to build it and operate it. The Spira can travel 300,000 miles on the energy that is used to build a regular car!"

The Spira uses an innovative honeycomb core board that was first mass produced in 2011 in Germany and then later in China in 2014. The embedded glass fibers in the honeycomb bend in a crash to absorb energy, Ballard said. "Carbon fibers would be much more expensive while only a little stronger. Also, carbon fiber’s rigid stiffness makes them brittle. Several molds cracked as we learned how to produce the largest Expanded Polypropylene (EPP) panels around. We call it 'Styrofoam on steroids.' Even first graders are smarter than car companies, as they all protect eggs with foam and cardboard in a drop test instead of heavy metal cans like we drive.”

Several patents have been awarded on the Spira, and others are pending in several countries. "We hope to license our technology and production techniques to others at a low cost to promote safety safe applications for the Spira by sharing our trade secrets and test results," he said. "We hope to someday be affiliated with or set up a nonprofit organization to promote safer auto designs."

By breaking the Guinness World record with the EV Spira (555.6 kilometer single trip on a single charge by going 775.8 kilometers) it proves that lightweight technology can achieve three things--energy saving, safety and strength.

"Car designers have focused on passenger safety while neglecting pedestrians, motorcyclists and bicyclists," Ballard said. "If the auto companies take responsibility for their cars being the number one killer of people from crashes and pollution, their designs will then change for the better. I say that all of the distracted drivers out there, including the texters, drunks and potheads don't kill. It is the car designs that do it. The foam Spira is designed to increase safety for the pedestrian, bicyclist, motorcyclist and passengers--people that the car designers have all ignored."

Foam is the future, and Ballard isn't soft-pedaling its importance to our next generation vehicles. "Our patent pending technology can revolutionize the way vehicles are designed and produced," Ballard said. "The Spira uses reinforcing fibers and plastic to provide a strong protective cage covered with soft foam all over the entire vehicle. It's 100% recyclable and can be completely replaced for around $400. Foam can be substituted for steel in cars for a more cushioned impact just as foam has replaced leather soles on most shoes and sandals. Foam protection on the outside of autos is needed because over half of vehicle deaths in large cities and developing countries are pedestrians and motorcyclists."

The shape of the Spira is also designed for safety in mind. "The pointed front decreases air resistance and makes for a smaller target," Ballard said. "In a crash it is best to deflect and roll, as in judo. The design choices were to fit a safe yet efficient shape around the people and the mechanics. Styling came secondary to achieve a sleek efficient shape while using lightweight, flexible, energy absorbing materials. Thought was also given to what will happen to the components in a crash."

The high mpg and low cost should entice drivers to take a step down from their luxury vehicles to save fuel and help the environment, according to Ballard. "In the future, this patent pending foam technology can be utilized in all sizes of vehicles to enhance safety and fuel consumption."

Designing and building the Spira has been an international journey, to say the least. "In 2008, I built my first one in Thailand, but the government there outlawed it, because it has three wheels," Ballard said. "So, then we built some in the Philippines and now we're building them in China. For all of the lightweight parts and batteries for the Spira, we buy them in China and the quality is outstanding."

Ballard knows that for wider acceptance, he will need to develop a 4-wheel Spira and that is why he's currently working on a prototype. "All of the credits and rebates from CARB aren't available with a 3-wheel vehicle, but by adding that fourth wheel, people who buy them will be able to save roughly $8,000-$10,000 through state rebates and federal tax credits. Since I can make the car for that, maybe I should just give them away?"

Ballard is currently seeking global/ local suppliers, dealers and manufacturers to share in his dream of producing efficient, light and safe vehicles. The Spira has started production in China due to the wide availability of motorcycle parts, and the company's business plan is to also license production worldwide. Will car dealerships and consumers start foaming at the mouth when they see the first 4-wheeled Spira? Only time will tell.

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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