Could climate-change warnings on gasoline pumps actually work?

Originally published at Grist.

Later this year, someone stopping to fuel up in North Vancouver will be the first customer to see the controversial warning labels. They’ll be wrapped around the gas pump handles. The exact wording isn’t settled yet, but here’s the gist of it: Every time you pump gas, you’re contributing to air pollution and climate change.

What will they look like? We don’t know that, either, but here’s one candidate considered by the city council that voted in the new warning-label law:

Gas Warning Label Caribou
Our Horizon

This label was developed by Robert Shirkey, a Toronto-based lawyer who has been obsessed with climate change for, as he put it, “as long as I can remember.” A few years ago, his grandfather told him to “do what you love,” then promptly died and left him with a small inheritance. Shirkey used the money to found Our Horizon, a nonprofit that functions as a one-stop shop for anyone curious about getting their local municipality to put climate change warning labels on gasoline pumps.

It might seem unfair to post labels at gas stations implying that individual drivers are guilty of nudging caribou closer to extinction. After all, lots of others are out there warming the troposphere: power plants, trucking, the military, you name it. Shirkey decided to focus on gas pump warning labels precisely because the responsibility for climate change is so diffuse. Unless you’re living some kind of Little House on the Prairie lifestyle, the energy that goes into heating your home and keeping you fed is invisible.

But the experience of fueling up is a real, gassy, in-your-face moment of personal responsibility. You can smell it. You have to pull levers to make it work. “There is nothing else,” Shirkey wrote, in an article for the amazingly named Municipal World magazine, “that currently connects us to the problems of climate change in such a direct way.”

Meanwhile, in West Vancouver, a teenager named Emily Kelsall heard Shirkey being interviewed on the radio on her way to school. In the same way that some sixteen-year-olds would travel from town to town for soccer matches, or to see punk shows at VFW halls, Kelsall began going from local city council to city council, proposing new legislation requiring gasoline warning labels.

The push to label gasoline pumps is also a reminder of just how much the movement to educate people about climate change has come to parallel the one to educate people about the dangers of tobacco. Tobacco campaigns started with a scientific argument (Doctors say: smoking is bad for you) before broadening into more advertising-inspired messages. When New York’s attorney general decided to investigate whether Exxon lied to the public or its investors about the risks of climate change, it recalled the decades of lawsuits brought against the four largest tobacco companies by the attorneys general of 46 states. When those cases were settled in 1996, tobacco companies had to pay the states money that went directly into funding anti-smoking advertising campaigns — particularly ones designed to stop teenagers from smoking in the first place.

Suing energy companies is going to be even harder than suing tobacco companies. That doesn’t make it any less entertaining to imagine what would happen if state attorneys general sued and won. There would be cheesy public service billboards in high schools about how uncool driving is compared to taking the bus. There would be television ads like this:

Right now, ads for energy companies are just part of the background noise of advertising that we all live with. They’re so familiar that we almost don’t see them anymore. But a few decades down the road, an advertisement glorifying wanton gasoline use could look as retro as these ads do today:

cigarette babies ad
Grist / Stanford School of Medicine

America used to be the world leader of warning labels. In 1966, it became the first country to force cigarette companies to print a warning from the surgeon general on every pack of smokes. They ran the gamut from “WARNING: Cigarettes are addictive,” to “WARNING: Tobacco smoke can harm your children.”

In 1966, 43 percent of Americans smoked. Fifty years later, that percentage has fallen to 18. Labels can’t claim all the credit, but the research is clear — warning labels work. Research also shows that warning labels are especially effective when they’re very large and combine pictures along with words, especially if those pictures are disgusting. That explains why it’s hard to buy a cigarette in many other countries without seeing a revolting picture of advanced mouth cancer. Beginning in 2012, cigarette packs sold in the United States were supposed to carry those picture warnings, too, but their rollout was blocked by a lawsuit from several cigarette companies.

The threat of lawsuits is part of the reason why gasoline warning labels have been slow to catch on. Countries that mandate large and graphic cigarette labels have been sued not only for violating intellectual property laws but also for violating international trade agreements. Both Berkeley and San Francisco have openly considered gasoline warning labels, only to find out they would be sued by the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA). Berkeley’s proposal inspired a stern editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle by WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd.

“It is, of course, ironic,” Reheis-Boyd wrote, “that the city of Berkeley — birthplace of the Free Speech Movement 50 years ago — would even consider an ordinance that so clearly treads upon the free speech rights of the men and women who own and operate service stations within its borders.”

The last time I was pumping gas, I looked up and saw that some enterprising person had clipped these ads to the fuel hoses:


It made me think of something I had learned a long time ago. People don’t actually like pumping gas. Gas companies know this and have designed their pumps to look like ATM machines on the grounds that people like getting money from ATM machines more than they like paying for gas. People don’t like schlepping kids everywhere in cars either, any more than the kids like to be schlepped. In my experience as an actual child who spent long hours in the backseat of a Ford Taurus, a realistic photo would involve a lot more sulking.

So, in the same way that beer distributors drop off sexy bikini lady posters to make sure that everyone at the bar remembers how much fun beer is, energy companies feel compelled to push the joys of gasoline at gas pumps and on billboards around the world. It’s clear why they would push back against a warning label with everything they’ve got. The cognitive dissonance of a picture of happy kids hanging from the fuel line and a picture of a kid with an inhaler glued to the gas pump would be a bit much — in the same way that a baby congratulating mom and dad for their taste in cigarettes is impossible once you have a label right there on the cigarette pack telling you that smoke destroys their tiny lungs.

There is a precedent in the U.S. for using art to discourage people from using quite so much gas. During World War II, the government rationed gasoline, set the country’s speed limit at 35 mph, and banned automobile racing. Special courts were set up to deal with people who drove “for pleasure.” If they were found guilty, their gasoline rations taken away. The Office of Price Administration, which was in charge of gas rationing, embarked on an advertising campaign to make conservation seem patriotic.

Doubling up on car travel


Out of all the conservation propaganda released during this period, “When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler” has had the most staying power. It’s been reworked so often that it’s acquired meme status.

To someone who has spent an awful lot of time looking at warning labels, the surprising thing is just how joyful old-fashioned conservation posters can be.


When you scare people, you get their attention. But that’s not the only way. A meta-analysis of research into fear and behavior change found that, even more than feeling scared, what motivated people to change was the feeling that they could do something, that their actions had some power in the world.

Putting labels on gasoline pumps isn’t going to fix climate change by itself, any more than cigarette labels fixed smoking. Another study found that simply raising the cost of cigarettes had a major effect, as did changing social norms that restricted people’s ability to light up in bars, restaurants, and other places that used to be clouded with smoke.

In other words, attempts to change behavior should also be accompanied by alternatives that make that change seem appealing and tangible. Can’t stop driving because most of this country’s infrastructure makes driving a necessity? Carpool, drive efficiently, and make sure to show up and vote for that light rail or Bus Rapid Transit project. When gasoline labels arrive — and they will — it’s important that they offer hope along with a dose of fear.

Environment, Science

How FEMA’s Toxic Katrina Trailers Made it to an Oil Boomtown

As soon as Nick Shapiro turned into the parking lot of the Tumbleweed Inn in Alexander, N.D., he recognized the trailers. They were off-white, boxy, almost cartoonish, and unadorned with any of the frills — racing stripes, awnings, window treatments — that a manufacturer would typically add to set a trailer apart on a display lot.

Nick Shapiro

But these trailers had never seen a display lot. Shapiro had first seen them when he was living in New Orleans in 2010, doing fieldwork for his Oxford University PhD. In New Orleans, everyone knew what they were, and the city was desperate to get rid of them. They had been built fast, and not to last. The fact that some people were still living in them because they had never gotten enough money to rebuild their homes, or had run afoul of unethical contractors, was just an unwanted reminder of how far the city still had to go to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

But in the oil fields of Alexander, where Shapiro found them, people had, at best, only a dim memory of hearing something bad about the trailers on the late night news.

Only one person in the improvised trailer park near the Tumbleweed Inn knew where the trailers were from. Now 19, he’d lived in one as a child, after his family’s home was destroyed when the levees around New Orleans broke in 2005. “It feels like home,” he said, looking around the park. “Not the landscape. The trailers. I’m used to it.”

Most of the people living in the trailer park were like him: men, young, drawn to North Dakota from all over the U.S. by the prospect of making $16-an-hour minimum in an oil boomtown. So what if they had to pay $1,200 a month to live in a trailer out on the prairie? They made it work. They slept in bunk beds, seven to a trailer, so that they could save as much as they could, and then get the hell out of there.

Get me 120,000 trailer homes, pronto!

The story of the trailers — which Grist has assembled from Freedom of Information Act requests, interviews, and the public record — goes like this: Less than 24 hours after the New Orleans levees broke, trailer companies were in touch with local officials for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), setting up contracts to provide housing for people whose homes were destroyed in the flood. Since 80 percent of New Orleans, plus a whole lot of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coastline, had been flooded, the need for housing was overwhelming. At the time, there were about 14,000 trailers in lots around the country, waiting to be sold; FEMA needed 120,000. It ordered nearly $2.7 billion worth of travel trailers and mobile homes from 60 different companies, and the production lines cranked into overdrive.

Still, a month after Katrina and Rita hit landfall, Louisiana had only managed to get 109 families into trailers. The alternatives were overcrowded shelters, or squatting in the wreckage of the flood.

As new trailers arrived, they brought hope: They were shiny and new, and most importantly, had never been buried under 12 feet of water. But when the people who were supposed to live in them opened the doors, many noted a strong chemical smell inside. Some thought it was OK: It smelled kind of like a new car in there! Others did not think it was OK, especially after they started to get nosebleeds and headaches, and began to have trouble breathing. Local pediatricians began to notice an epidemic of respiratory infections in children in the area — and all of them seemed to be living in FEMA trailers.

“After the storm, about half of the people I knew were in FEMA trailers,” said Sierra Club organizer Becky Gillette. “Some of them were fine. The smokers didn’t complain much. But I had a friend who would wake up in the middle of the night, gasping for air.” Gillette knew a fair amount about air pollution — she’d worked on social justice campaigns around the local oil refinery. The link between mobile homes and formaldehyde was well documented; the low ceilings and small size concentrated any fumes emanating from the particleboard they were built with.

Even after the National Institutes of Health declared formaldehyde to be a carcinogen, the Department of Housing and Urban Development didn’t bother to regulate levels of formaldehyde for travel trailers or motor homes, under the theory that they were only temporary lodging. Formaldehyde test kits were about $35 apiece, and they added up fast. Gillette ordered 32 of them — over $1,200 worth. When 30 of the 32 tested positive for high formaldehyde levels, she shared the information with FEMA — which, she said, did nothing. So Gillette got a grant from the Sierra Club to buy even more kits.

FEMA — or at least some parts of FEMA — did know that the trailers were dangerous, though that would not emerge until the congressional hearings on the issue in 2008. FEMA appears to have stopped testing trailers in early 2006, after a field agent discovered that one trailer, which was occupied by a couple expecting their second child, had formaldehyde levels at 75 times the recommended threshold for workplace safety. The couple was relocated, and management pushed back against further testing, even after a man was found dead in his trailer a few months later. “Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK,” a FEMA lawyer named Patrick Preston advised on June 15, 2006. “Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.”

That same month, the Sierra Club announced that, out of 44 trailers tested with kits purchased from Gillette’s grant, 40 had dangerously high formaldehyde levels. Mary DeVany, an occupational safety consultant who worked with the Sierra Club on interpreting the results, theorized that the plywood that was used to build some of the trailers wasn’t heat-treated properly. Trailers built by three companies in particular — Pilgrim International, Coachman Industries, and Gulf Stream Coach — had the highest levels. Kevin Broom, a spokesperson for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, told reporters that trailer residents needed to open their windows.

Nick Shapiro

Used trailers, warning stickers, and the free market

FEMA ultimately succeeded in deploying 140,000 trailers up and down the ravaged Gulf Coast. Then it had to start figuring out what to do with them as people began to rebuild their lives and leave them behind. The agency had planned on getting rid of the trailers by selling them, possibly even to the people who were living in them, but that was no longer an option. In July of 2007, FEMA suspended sales of the trailers to the public, and in November, it announced plans to move as many residents as possible out of the trailers — partly, a FEMA spokesperson said, because of formaldehyde levels.

Around the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began running its own tests. It announced the results in early 2008: On average, the 519 trailers the CDC tested had five times the formaldehyde levels found in most modern homes, but a few were dramatically higher — about 40 times the recommended levels. The CDC’s then-director urged FEMA to relocate anyone still living in trailers, particularly children and the elderly, before summer, when heat would make the fumes even worse.

Even unoccupied, the trailers were costing nearly $130 million a year to store, according to federal records, but what to do with them had become a loaded question. Congressional hearings held in spring 2008 established that the trailers were unsafe. In February of 2009, the CDC started a $3.4 million pilot program designed to find people — especially children — who had lived in FEMA trailers and track the their health over time. And a massive class-action lawsuit filed by trailer residents against FEMA and the trailer manufacturers continued to work its way through the court system.

But on Jan. 1, 2010, a court injunction banning the sale of the trailers expired, and FEMA handed them off to the General Services Administration (GSA) to auction them off, for about 7 percent what FEMA had originally paid for them. The GSA made buyers sign an agreement promising not to sell them as housing, and it slapped stickers on them saying that they were not to be used for human habitation — just storage or recreation.

Observers were aghast. “What if Toyota ordered a recall, then simply put a sticker on its vehicles saying they were unfit to drive before reselling them?” said Becky Gillette. In late 2008, FEMA had quietly sold about a thousand Katrina trailers and mobile homes as scrap; six months later, they were spotted in mobile home parks in Missouri and Georgia. What was to stop the same thing from happening over and over again — stickers or no stickers?

Nick Shapiro

As it turned out, nothing. FEMA trailers began to turn up everywhere, particularly in places where people needed a lot of housing fast, no questions asked. The stickers that read “NOT TO BE USED FOR HOUSING” were gone from the trailers almost as soon as they left the auction lot, though none of the buyers would admit to removing them.

Missing FEMA trailer sticker
Nick Shapiro

The trailers showed up later in 2010, at the Deepwater Horizon spill. They showed up in 2011 in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee, in neighborhoods that had been flattened by tornadoes.

That was when Shapiro decided to follow up and started testing the trailers himself. He’d become preoccupied with them — how ubiquitous they remained despite their known risks. He defrayed his expenses by calling in favors; there was the analytical chemistry lab that agreed to run the tests for free, and a colleague who applied part of a grant from the National Science Foundation toward shipping.

Word got out that he was testing trailers, and people from Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, and Illinois began to seek him out. Every test he did came in above the 16 ppm (parts per million) threshold that had been established as the new FEMA standard after the congressional hearings. None of the people who contacted Shapiro had been told, before they bought the trailers, that they were dangerous to live in. Most of them told Shapiro they couldn’t afford to move; they just appreciated knowing the risk.

Those who did try to get rid of the trailers, though, found that it wasn’t easy. Marty Horine of Clinton, Mo., bought a 32-foot ex-FEMA Gulfstream Cavalier for her son in 2007, two weeks before the trailers were officially declared unfit to live in.

Horine tried to return the trailer. The seller refused, and promptly declared bankruptcy. Horine contacted the General Services Administration, the government agency that had handled the trailer auctions. (“I’m a retired schoolteacher,” she says, dryly. “We’re a little bit of a bulldog, schoolteachers.”) But the GSA told Horine that it would only take the trailer back if she brought it to Hope, Arkansas, the site of the original auction, and it would only buy the trailer back for what the GSA had sold it for. Horine had bought hers from a reseller, for $6,000, while that reseller had bought it at auction for around $1,000.

Nick Shapiro

Horine still sees FEMA trailers for sale in Clinton from time to time. Three years ago, over a hundred of them appeared for sale on a nearby lot, with the stickers scraped off. “I went over there, just acting dumb, because that’s not hard to do,” Horine drawled. “Then I said to the girl who was in charge of selling them, ‘You know this is illegal.’” The woman said that she didn’t know what Horine was talking about, but Horine noticed that the trailers were gone the next day.

Horine’s trailer remains unoccupied. She feels that selling it would be unethical. Even if she sold it on the cheap to someone who was aware of the risks, who’s to say that person wouldn’t turn around and sell it as a home to someone else? “It’s still sitting down there,” she said when I called her, as though she were describing a visitor that had overstayed its welcome.

Shapiro began to file public records requests to find out as much as he could about the trailers, and where they went. Now, when people contacted him, he had a collection of spreadsheets that he could search through to verify whether their trailer was one of the 120,000.

When a boomtown looks like a refugee camp

When Shapiro arrived in North Dakota, he was following a rumor: that the oil boom in the Bakken Shale had attracted the Katrina trailers from across the country like filings to a magnet. What he didn’t expect was to find the trailers surrounding the towns of the Bakken boom at Katrina-level densities. These boomtowns were hard to distinguish from refugee camps.

How the trailers had made their way to North Dakota from Louisiana was a riddle. Back in 2010, FEMA donated several hundred trailers to the local Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa; it would not have been hard for the trailers to migrate again out of Turtle Mountain and into the oil fields.  Shapiro was expecting to find oil and gas workers living in them. But instead the trailers were occupied by young men seeking their fortunes in the service economy that had sprung up around the oil and gas workers.

The oil and gas workers lived in nicer trailers, a few feet away. But the ones the service workers occupied were falling apart: Mold was blooming out of vents and improperly sealed crevices. In a sense, the trailers had been embalmed; now they were beginning to decompose.

The good news was, after four years of air-quality readings in FEMA trailers, the levels of formaldehyde were dropping. This spring, Shapiro returned to retest a trailer owned by a retired Mississippi couple that he had tested when they contacted him back in 2011. Back then the air had measured 105.6 ppb of formaldehyde – dangerously high.

In 2015, the level was down to 20 ppb — a fifth as high, but still over the 16 ppb safety threshold. What exactly did this mean? It’s hard to say, because no one has systematically studied how the toxic trailers might have actually harmed their residents. The CDC had a plan, known as KARE (aka, Katrina and Rita Exposures), to register and track the health of FEMA trailer residents, but it never moved past the pilot stage. Shapiro says he asked CDC why and received a letter saying that the decision to not proceed rested solely with FEMA.

Shapiro gave the couple a prototype “air remediation device” – a houseplant hooked up to an aquarium pump with the diaphragm reversed. In the last year, he’d been working with a research group called Public Lab on low-cost ways that people could monitor and clean the air in their own homes. For Shapiro, the project was a morale-booster in the face of the relentlessly dispiriting trailer research. But he also worried that the plant was a kind of cop-out — a form of potted surrender to the fact that not all environmental justice campaigns result in actual environmental justice.

He tested the couple’s trailer again, anyway. A month after the installation of the “remediation device,” the formaldehyde levels had fallen 40 percent, to 12 ppm. A decade after Katrina had summoned the trailers into existence, the ill-fated homes might almost be safe to live in.

Live in one of FEMA’s Katrina trailers? Here’s what you can do.  

Video by Mariel Carr. Special thanks to reporter Nick Shapiro. Maps by Clayton Aldern. VIN look-up tool by Cory Simmons. Video produced by The Chemical Heritage Foundation, a library, museum, and center for scholars in Philadelphia that fosters dialogue on the role of science and technology in society. Find out more about its multimedia magazine at distillations.org.

Environment, Science

I Test-Drive a Futuristic Mini-Car

Originally published at Grist.

I hate cars for a multitude of reasons, both logical (I’m afraid of getting hit by one) and illogical (cars are just so boring).

But it’s a complicated way to be, hating things. Whenever I decide to just go ahead and full-on loathe, I find myself making exceptions. For example, I am actually pretty excited to be getting into a car right now. My excuse: It’s electric, and it looks like a jellybean on three wheels. Toyota has set up a little practice track in a high school parking lot not far from the Aspen Ideas Festival, where attendees have been disappearing for test drives. For the last few days I’ve been overhearing a lot of excited chatter about the test drives, in between all the fraught panel discussions about “What is America?” (Short answer: complicated) and “Is America a jerk?” (Short answer: probably).

The car is called the iRoad, because Toyota has been putting a lowercase “i” in front of its weirder projects for a while now, and Apple never did win those trademark infringement lawsuits. The iRoad is being billed as marrying the safety and ease of a car with the fun of a motorcycle. I am not sure about the safety part — to the eyes of someone who grew up in SUV country, the iRoad looks alarmingly small, like the clown car of the future.

But once I climb inside the clown car, the feeling changes. It has one very narrow seat in the front, which resembles the pilot seat of a Star Wars X-wing. “The steering is in the back,” says the driving instructor, Steve. “So it’s going to handle counter-intuitively. It’s a good idea to turn earlier than you usually would. There’s a gyroscope inside that will keep you from tipping over. See if you can get around the track and not knock down any of these cones.”

What I want to say is, suavely, “It’s not impossible. I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home.” But since I drive so infrequently, it takes a while for the muscle memory of the whole process to return. I stare down at my feet. Which pedal is the brake? Which pedal is the accelerator? I push my foot down on each, very slowly, while trying to look supremely confident, and like a person who under no circumstances should be forbidden to drive the prototype car.

Steve looks worried. I think Steve is on to me.

But it is too late, Steve, because I now know which pedal is the accelerator. I take off with a jolt, and round the first corner, sharply. The entire car tilts to one side with the force of the turn, in a way that feels eerily non-vehicular. (I later hear that the main engineer on the project, Yanaka Akihiro, is an ardent skier, and is obsessed with the idea of mechanically replicating the experience of skiing.) Cones topple all around me.

Steve wasn’t kidding about the turns, but each lap around the track feels like I’m getting more of the hang of it, though I’m still taking out the occasional cone. My time is up long before I’m ready to stop driving. I reluctantly step out, wondering, how would this work in the real world? Why don’t we have something like this already?

Well, we have. Many times. When I first saw the iRoad, it looked familiar, though it took a while to realize why. It’s a pint-sized ringer for the Dymaxion Car, the three-wheeled car designed by Buckminister Fuller (with design input from Norman Bel Geddes and Isamo Noguchi). The car was the toast of the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.

The Dymaxion car was much larger than the iRoad. The ideals were futuristic, but in practice it was, like many of Fuller’s later projects, heavily influenced by boat design — Fuller was an avid sailor. Even then, in a time that I (perhaps naively) imagine being rich with parking spaces, since there were so few cars in the U.S. relative to today, its parallel parking skills attracted attention.

Fuller had grand ambitions, which involved altering future models so that they could fly as well as drive. Then, one of the three demo models was involved in a car crash, and its driver was killed. Would-be investors evaporated. Only three cars were ever completed.

Buckminister Fuller insisted that the Dymaxion car had been cleared of fault for the accident, which was true — as the story goes, the crash was caused by an automobile driver who was trying to get close enough to the Dymaxion car to get a better look. But earlier this summer, Dan Neil, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, got a rare chance to take a replica of the original Dymaxion car out for a spin.

The headline — “A test drive of the death trap car designed by Buckminister Fuller” — gives you a good sense of Neil’s conclusion. The three wheels made it more likely to tip over than a regular, four-wheeled car, and the single back wheel began to oscillate dangerously from side to side when the speed got above 50 (which explains why the iRoad doesn’t go faster than 35 mph).

So far, there are only a few hundred iRoads out in the world, and none of them are for sale. A hundred of them are part of a test group in Tokyo, whose drivers are using them as personal cars. Another 70 are part of a car-sharing program in Grenoble, France. It’s been in the works for nearly a decade now; a predecessor, a three-wheeled wheelchair called the iReal, never made it past the concept stage.

What would be a good American location to introduce this vehicle? I am prejudiced, since I live there, but a place like San Francisco — with its moody weather, bad parking, not-so-great transit, and obsession with things that are shiny and new — would seem like a good fit. People in San Francisco will drive almost anything. Before the great pocket bike crackdowns of the early 2000s, the sight of huge men perched on tiny, insanely loud motorcycles was a regular part of the fabric of street life in the Mission. And San Francisco City Hall has four charging stations, which could be an ideal setup for a demo electric car fleet.

But there are issues with the California DMV. By California DMV rules, the iRoad’s weight (light) and number of wheels (less than four) means that it’s in the same class as a motorcycle — so drivers would have to wear helmets. The DMV has been “very accommodating,” according to Jason Schultz, who has been working on iRoad focus groups for Toyota —  but not so accommodating enough yet to waive the helmet law for the iRoad.

This debate over the future of the iRoad — what is it? how best to use it?  — is symptomatic of larger questions about the future of the urban car. Ten or 20 years from now, will there be enough of a market of solo people looking for a permanent, full-time car that they can squeeze into awkward parking spaces? Or will most city cars — no matter what size — be owned by carshare companies?

The carshare market makes some sense for the iRoad because, as Jana Hartline, environmental communication manager at Toyota Motor Sales, describes it, “Americans buy for the ‘what if.’” Someone who drives alone 95 percent of the time will still buy a car that seats two to four people, just in case. A carshare user could check out an iRoad for solo errands, the same way that a person listening to music alone will put on headphones instead of breaking out the boombox.

But would a carshare program go for an eccentric, three-wheeled car that requires at least 15 minutes of training for everyone who drives it, when it could go for something simple like the COMS, its four-wheeled equivalent? (Forbes described the COMS, brutally, as Toyota’s “attempt to capitalize on the diminished expectations of global slackerdom.”) And would drivers of more conventional vehicles share the road with iRoads?

Right now, there are no firm plans to put the iRoad into production, in the U.S. or anywhere. There’s no theoretical price — not even a potential price range. The iRoad is light years more advanced than the Dymaxion car, technology-wise, but it might wind up being an expensive toy (like many other three-wheeled vehicles). It could be perpetually-on-the-verge-of-happening vaporware, like Elio Motors, which claims to have 38,000 orders for its own three-wheeled car, but has struggled for years to actually get the funding to put it into production. (Elio has also struggled with the helmet issue.)

Or the iRoad could just live out its life as a flashy demo, bringing good PR to Toyota, a company which may believe in harmonious transit, but which also recently moved its U.S. headquarters to the suburban sprawl of Plano, Texas — which is one way to make sure that your employees have a lot more firsthand experience with driving than with public transit.

A vehicle like the iRoad won’t get far in a place like Plano. Its 35 mph limit means it can’t get on the highway. It holds about as much charge as a golf cart –- about 30 miles’ worth. And, quite frankly, when you get down to it, the iRoad is a golf cart — it’s just an awesome one. In the same way that Telsla’s big electric car breakthrough was in making the electric car a status symbol, instead of just something noble, the sexying-up of the golf cart is a plausible future for the metropolitan car.

That is, if you are car people. I may have loved driving the iRoad more than I ever expected, but if I want to haul things around the city, be protected from bad weather, and use renewable energy, I’ve already got my technology picked out. I’ve seen cyclists use these capacious rain ponchos in places like Shanghai. They’re kind of like a pup tent you wear on your body — and when this drought ends, believe me, I’m getting one.

It would be great to live in a future where the iRoad would be puttering through traffic. But as for actually buying one? I’m just not the target market. Call me when you put that gyroscope on a bicycle! Then we’ll talk.