Home » What Cars Would Be Like In A World Without Glass

What Cars Would Be Like In A World Without Glass


You know what the unsung hero material of cars is? It’s not iron or steel or even carbon fiber; those all get plenty of credit, all the time. We’re always talking about “American Iron” or gushing over exposed carbon fiber, but you hardly ever hear anyone losing their shit over glass, when, really, it’s absolutely crucial to what cars are. I was thinking about this, which led me down a terrifying path: What if we, as humans, had never developed glass? Or, really, any transparent materials? How would that affect how we build cars? Once this thought gets in your head, you have to see it through if you want to be free. So that’s exactly what I did.

I’d like to reiterate at this point that in this hypothetical world I’m talking about, it’s not just glass, it’s any transparent material that doesn’t exist. I have to clarify this because the first thing David said when I mentioned this idea to him was “So what? We’d just use plexiglass,” and then he chugged a whole carton of chocolate milk and crashed his skateboard down a flight of stairs. [Editor’s note: I have no idea what Jason is talking about. -DT]

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

As I suspect is starting to dawn upon you as you join me in this daunting thought experiment, a world devoid of see-through solid materials would be profoundly different.

Very early cars were, in fact, pretty much glass-free. You can certainly build cars without transparent materials, and many cars were built just like that, if you take out things like kerosene side lamp lenses and instrument gauge glass and that sort of thing.

These cars were okay like that because, one, they were slow as shit, and two, people were somehow more accepting of physical discomfort — or they were willing to use physical discomfort as an excuse to buy absurd open-car driving getups like these:


Of course, people soon decided that they didn’t want to wear what was essentially a tent with sleeves every time they wanted to take a drive, so the enclosed automobile body was developed. Very early enclosed cars kept the passengers out of the weather by essentially building a small house around them, and to make it so the driver could see out of the little house on wheels they employed a technique that had been in use in carriages and dwellings for centuries: glass windows.

It seems absurdly obvious to us now that glass keeps weather out and still lets you see. Hell, even in good weather glass is crucial to driving because it’s just hard to deal with the amount of air coming at your face for speeds of over, say, 30 mph. So, in our sadly glass-less world we’re imagining here, how could you manage to drive at anything approaching highway speeds? And, remember, this means no goggles either, since they require glass, too. This is a really hard problem to solve, but I think I have some ideas on how you could do it.

To illustrate my ideas, we’re going to pretend that we’re in a world without glass, except that it’s not the modern era when you can come up with complex computer-based workarounds — instead, it’s the 1960s. I’m just trying to keep it sort of simple, since I can already tell my editor David thinks this is going off the rails as it is.


The first option I suspect most people would think of involves the use of wind deflectors. After all, these have been in use on open-cockpit race cars for decades, where the devices help move the onrushing air up and over the driver’s helmet.

Of course, in our transparent-material-laden world, it’s worth noting that drivers still did and do wear goggles (now helmet visors) because even though these deflectors do a remarkable job moving air up and over a helmet, it’s not like all the air could be moved out of the way. In the case of a passenger car, it’s not likely enough air could be moved to maintain the required comfort and ability to see well.


Note that all the lights–headlights, turn indicators, taillights–are open arc lamps, essentially a pair of electrodes that have a bright arc of electricity between them. These buzzy old devices (see below) were used as street and stage lamps in the late 1800s and early 1900s before being replaced by incandescent bulbs; in this glass-less world, though, arc lights continued to be used and developed. They have metal parabolic reflectors behind them, tinted amber for the indicators, red for the taillights.


Maybe something like what I’ve drawn above could work, at least at lower speeds? Even so, there’s still a huge drawback, and that’s the lack of weather protection. People are going to want to drive without an onslaught of whatever the weather is outside pummeling them through the huge open windshield.

We could reduce all of the windows to slits, but slits would still let in a some amount of air and weather, and visibility would suffer dramatically. Perhaps what is needed is a car with flexibility to deal with low-speed, decent weather situations as well as high-speed/inclement weather versions.

Let’s imagine two basic configurations, one for low (35 mph or less) and high speed (35 mph and up). Also, the high speed configuration could be employed for bad weather situations as well.

We’ll start with the low speed/decent weather setup.


Low-Speed, Periscope-Based Viewing System

Of course, we see the lack of glass in the windows. The windshield–well, I guess we can’t call it that, since it does zero shielding of wind–the front window, then, has a simple set of protective wire bars to keep decent-sized things from hitting you in the face. Perhaps a screen-like mesh might be used behind this, to keep small-scale things out as well, so you don’t get a mouthful of mosquitos.

The windows also have rolled-up leather or canvas covers, and snaps along the pillars to secure them. For low speeds, these are generally kept open, unless the weather is really terrible.

Polished metal mirrors have been in use since ancient Egypt, and it makes sense to think that a glass-free world would have developed polished metal mirrors to a high degree, so we have one for a rear side-view mirror and as the mirrors in that simple periscope you see on the roof; it isn’t used in the low-speed configuration, but hang on.

In most ways, driving this car at low speeds in this glassless world isn’t that much different than driving a ’60s era car from the real world; it’s just a bit windier, and probably has a more powerful heater to compensate. But, tooling along at 25 mph, seeing that speedometer needle behind its little mesh screen, this shouldn’t seem all that weird.


Get it over 35 or so, though (or have a lot of rain or snow or cold), and you have to deal with this:


High speeds mean a lot of air and weather rushing through those open windows, which would make driving nearly impossible. So, we have to close the windows. Of course, since we only have opaque materials, visibility will be extremely tricky. Here’s my work-around:

First, there’s the polished metal-mirror periscope. That should give some sort of forward visibility, but it won’t be great, and there will be almost no lateral visibility, either. And, now that I look at it, this thing would still be an air scoop, and could blow a lot of air to your face. I have a solution for that, though! The periscope — shown at the right side of the image above — would have an air diversion hose, which would vent straight down, the path the air is already taking, and that should reduce the amount that would have to make that 45° bend to blow into your face — especially if your face is sealed well against the periscope, so that the only low pressure area is through that vent.


All this likely would still be difficult, but better than the huge open window, I’d think.

This sort of mechanism with the curtains and periscope means our whole approach to highway travel has to change. I’m thinking that before getting on a highway, there are on-ramps with pull-off areas for drivers to stop, roll down their window curtains to block the openings, and then to deploy their periscope assembly inside, and on the outside unfold the front and rear guidance arms.

The front arm folds out in such a way that it slots into a central channel set into the roadway, and in this channel a small horseshoe-shaped yoke houses two simple electrical switches on rollers, one on each side. When driving, if the car is centered in the channel, the switches make no contact and a green central arc light illuminates; if the left switch contacts the channel wall, it illuminates a corresponding arc lamp on the dash, prompting the driver to steer a bit away from the left; if it contacts the right side, the right lamp goes on, and the driver knows to steer away from that direction.

This way, even with limited visibility, the driver can keep following the road path safely.

Of course, passing in the glass-less world highways is not possible, and signage is designed to be visible in the central area that the periscopes can view. With all this in mind, I’d be surprised if anyone manages to drive more than 50 mph or so.


The contact arms, front and rear, are there to keep you from rear-ending someone, or getting rear-ended; when those contact switches are triggered, the red lights of the dash flash, and maybe there’s an audible alarm.

Now, I was trying to think if there could be any better way to do this–could a mesh like nylon provide enough visibility and still keep out enough air? I read through a few papers about the permeability of materials like nylon, and from what I can tell, there’s significant deformation and a fair amount of airflow through the material, especially ones that would be thin enough to be even somewhat visible through, so this doesn’t appear to be a productive solution.

So how else can we see through something solid without a transparent material? Then it hit me: a pinhole!

High-Speed, Camera Obscura-Based System

Yes, maybe the interior of the car could be transformed into a sort of camera obscuraessentially a room with a tiny hole that lets in light, which acts as a sort of lens, projecting an image of the scene outside on the far wall of the room:


This has been attributed to DaVinci and is pretty incredible, but does have a drawback: the image is upside down.

So, not ideal. And, these generally require a good bit of light on the outside, and a lot of darkness on the inside, to work well. If we did try it on a car, maybe it would be like this:

A flip-down polished-metal mirror could let the driver see the projected image on the screen on the back wall of the car’s cabin, though now the image will be reversed left-to-right and be upside-down. Unless it’s a concave mirror, like looking into a spoon, because that will flip the image vertically!

So, because that flip-down polished metal mirror will be concave, so you can look at a very imperfect image that’s right-way up and the mirror will correct for the left-right flip as well, so it should be just barely usable for driving!


After doing this wildly important thought-experiment, I do believe that driving, even relatively high-speed driving, could be accomplished in a world free of transparent materials.

I also believe it would be really, really crappy, and I am so very thankful that we live in a world where solid things that we can somehow see through are plentiful and allow us to tear ass along highways at high speed, in tranquility and comfort.

Thanks, glass.


(Images: Jason Torchinsky, Porsche Historical Collection, Renault Archives, Vintage Dancer, Matrise)

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1 year ago

This professional artist spit tea everywhere at the title “High Speed Camera Obscura Based System”

Keep up the good work!!!

2 years ago

They’d be like the Chrysler LX cars, and most recent GM cars, too.

I mean, they have so little glass on them now, it’s like they’re allergic to glass :p

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