Street Smart

It took college professor John Robinson seven years to get one, but with gas prices soaring and roads ever more congested, his fuel-sipping and space-saving little car is living up to its name

June 13, 2006|By JOE BURRIS | JOE BURRIS,SUN REPORTER

Heads turned as John Robinson drives his diminutive Smart car along U.S. 1. Is it a shrunken minivan? An oversized Hot Wheels?

The University of Maryland professor pulls up alongside a sport utility vehicle, and lengthwise, the Smart was about a third of its size. A construction worker gazes so intently he almost walks into a moving crane. Another driver whips out his cell phone camera to shoot the tiny vehicle.

Robinson smiles. He seems to enjoy the attention generated by his car - which at just over 8 feet long is 4 feet shorter than a Mini Cooper - so much so he no longer bemoans that it took seven years to secure one to use in this country.

This despite the fact that Robinson is a top expert on time usage, having devoted his career to studying, hour by hour, how Americans spend their days and nights. But the Smart car has helped shift his attention from time to space, namely the amount of unused space people drive around in.

"The whole point of doing this is to confront some of the environmental issues that come up in ordinary automobiles," Robinson, 71, says. "About 90 percent of trips are taken alone. Why are we carrying around all these back seats in our cars?"

Robinson bought the car in May, his third, actually, after buying two Smart cars several years ago that are idling in California because he's been unable to register them.

The car's efficiency and design appeal to Robinson, a graying, bookish man so conscientious of time that he deliberately arrives at meetings five minutes late, since studies show most folks don't arrive promptly.

Now while parallel parking he doesn't have to worry about every spot being taken. "Large cars are just a waste of space and energy," he says in a low, professorial tone. "In an urban environment, you take advantage of any opportunity of space."

Smart cars are nothing new: Robinson saw one in Paris in 1999, one year after DaimlerChrysler began building the cars in France in conjunction with timepiece maker Swatch (Smart stands for "Swatch Mercedes art"). But they are not easy to get on this side of the Atlantic, although that may change: A German newspaper reported recently that Daimler Chrysler will soon announce plans to sell the car in the United States next year.

Returning home in 1999, Robinson began looking into how to get one. He checked Web sites, made dozens of phone calls and visited Europe again.

Eventually his persistence led to his purchasing two 2002 models for $15,000 each from a French dealer shipping them to California via Canada.

"The shipping costs for two were the same as for one, so I bought two," says Robinson. The cars were shipped to Vancouver, British Columbia, where Canadian customs officials initially refused to allow them in.

"I pointed out that their Department of Transportation had on its Web site that the Smart car was the perfect solution for the future of transportation problems in Canada," says Robinson. "Eventually they changed their minds, and they allowed it through customs, and I moved them to California. But then we started working on American customs; it got more difficult."

Government restrictions - particularly emissions standards - have kept Smart cars from being sold widely in the United States.

For example, the car cannot be registered in California, a state with emission standards higher than that of the Environmental Protection Agency. Nor can it be registered in states that follow California's standards.

EPA spokesman John Millett says California's emissions standards exceed that of the federal allowance in part because of the Clean Air Act, which allows the smog-prone state to have more authority over its air quality.

"They are incrementally more stringent as far as allowing nitrogen oxide emissions," says Millett. "There are four other states that have adopted California standards: Maine, Vermont, New York and Massachusetts."

EPA issues also sidelined local dealer JK Technologies, which had planned to sell the Smart car two years ago.

"We have to calibrate the car's electronic control units to meet U.S. standards for nitric oxide and particulates, the tiny particles that come out of the tailpipe," says Jonathan Weisheit, chief engineer for JK Technologies. He added that the company plans to start selling the cars in October, with prices beginning at $20,000.

Robinson's initial investment was ultimately relegated to storage.

His experience is far from uncommon.

Robinson remained determined to secure a Smart car to drive. He discovered Zapworld, a dealer headquartered in California that specializes in fuel-efficient vehicles such as the Smart car.

It retrofits the cars in California to meet U.S. standards, then ships them to branches throughout the country. The nearest branch to Robinson was in New Hampshire; he purchased a 2002 model there for $30,000 and drove it home.

He doesn't know what he's going to do about the cars in California; he has a vacation home there and hopes that one day he'll be able to drive the cars on the West Coast.

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