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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]

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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49 Responses

  1. I look forward to Mondays now! Just knowing that Torch is going to go off his meds for long enough to create this sort of insanity lets me look forward to an otherwise unpleasantly, well, Monday-ish, Monday.

      1. For the periscope solution, an open vent tube that went down wouldn’t _suck_ air from the cabin instead?
        And for the pinhole, what if the camera obscura was like those old time cameras, where the entire setup was the size of a box in front of the operator face, with a cloth over them?
        Maybe in that world, the entire car would be sealed, but roofs would be at shoulder length, with “turrets” for the driver and passengers – and there would be the “seeing” contraptions we discussed.

  2. Hold up there, Torch.
    As I recall, the spark plug came out of a little glass ‘gun’ Volta made which would ignite methane (?) when you rubbed it to produce static electricity. We used hot bulb before that: talk about pre-ignition!
    Also, much of scientific progress during the Industrial Revolution used glass: beakers & retorts, dontchaknow.
    Sorry, man: my inner nerd was just screaming way too loud…

    1. Your inner nerd isn’t the only one screaming. There’s going to be a big drop in life expectancy once you back out all the advancements that require a microscope and that’s not even factoring in all the great minds that are rendered useless because they didn’t have glasses to see properly.

      The more I think about it, I wouldn’t even think we’d be anywhere near cars today if we didn’t have glass.

  3. Rather than a camera obscura, why not have everyone (or at least the driver) face backwards and have a shiny metal mirror where the rear window is on current cars? Dashboard and all controls at the rear. Now the driver can wear a helmet for protection against rocks, birds and whatnot smacking the back of their head, and eyes are protected unless something bounces off the rear-mounted, front-view mirror.

  4. The world you have imagined is terrifying, yet strangely intriguing.
    I suspect that in this case, the car would never have become popular. Maybe some cases where the wealthy could afford a chauffer to suffer the indignity of an open cockpit, a personal car could be useful. However, for the majority of the population, I think a robust public transportation system would have become much more popular. Rail guided and run on a strict timetable, the need to see where you’re going could be essentially eliminated. It works fine for airport monorails, which run driverless in many cases. The windows are there for comfort of the passengers, but the function would be identical without the windows, although somewhat off-putting. The compromises of the cars above remove the convenience that caused cars to become so ubiquitous.

    1. In this world, I wouldn’t be driving. No glasses or contact lenses would make my life pretty miserable. 10-15 years ago, I lost my glasses on a misadventure. I was across town. I figured that I could drive 5 miles or so of city traffic on roads I knew. I went about a block and a half, parked and walked home to get my other glasses. It was waaaaaay too scary to attempt to drive without them.

    2. I agree that you would see a lot of chauffeurs, or at least operator’s seats. The passengers and cargo would be in their own enclosed climate controlled space, while the operator would be in smaller open-air cockpit. There would be no need to stick to our 2 or 3 box automotive form factors.

      Of course, a world without transparent materials would also affect other aspects of automotive life. If you never had the glass to make vacuum tubes, would you have a car radio? Or would you be relegated to a car phonograph? What about translucent materials (like onyx, say) to make covers for indicator lights instead of tinted arclights behind mesh.

  5. Do you guys remember a magazine called MPH? It was a thing right about when I was 13-14, at the height of my desire for silliness and cars, and at the dullest point in Automotive media. Reading stuff like this awakens that memory of laughing my ass off just reading a magazine about cars where the most nonsensical ideas and takes were given pages of space to come to life.

    This site is officially my favorite thing ever.

    BTW Without the need for such a solid structure and no possibility of keeping wind noise down at all, I dont see why any car would have a fixed metal roof at all. I imagine all cars would essentially have roll hoops and retractable canvas tops, because of the cost and weight savings.

    Basically a world of Jeeps and Miatas. I’m here for it.

  6. OK, so I’m team David here. It’s the physics. Let’s talk about matter, and electromagnetic radiation.

    When we observe that some material is transparent, all that means, is that electromagnetic radiation of the wavelengths that the cones and rods of our eyes can see, is not stopped by the matter of which that transparent thing is made.

    It is REFRACTED though. So what that means, is that you can use the basic characteristics of any regular crystal lattice material to find some wavelength of radiation that goes through it. Even DNA was exdplored by x-ray diffraction.

    SO. What that means, is that even if the material isn’t transparent to visible light, we could develop sensors that could ‘see’ ahead of the vehicle though its front facing structure, and pick out the roadway.

    You wouldn’t need any mesh screens or louvres or whatever.

      1. You could have a series of needle gauges in a row, from bottom to top, where the bottom one is the closest to the vehicle, and each gauge corresponds to a sensor aimed further on down the road as you go up. The general curve of the road would be indicated thus.

        But too far down the rabbit hole, and all these things end up raving lunacy anyway.

  7. Here’s a morbid thought: if humanity hasn’t invented any transparent materials, this imagined future likely hosts a robust and highly dubious market for clear materials which occur in nature.

    Specifically, for corneas, human or animal. Imagine the chaos. Gang fights outside morgues. Rhinoceros corpses discovered in Kenyan wildlife refuges, horns intact but tusks missing. Grizzled men driving utes through the outback, beds loaded past capacity with ‘roo eyeballs. It’d be madness.

      1. Speaking for *gestures vaguely* all of us, a recurring Torchtopian (Autorchian?) column, in which you bang on about whatever you want, related to cars or not, would be endlessly delightful. You’d be like everyone’s weird uncle who only comes around on Thanksgiving and the occasional Easter, depending on how born-again he’s feeling lately. Except less racist, less fond of mainstream conspiracy theories, and more wonderful in every way.

  8. After ruminating on this for a day or two, I realized there is a horrific aspect of this. Accidents.

    A commenter in here (https://www.theautopian.com/what-cars-would-be-like-in-a-world-without-glass/#comment-4444) mentioned that glass is designed to “catch” a human head and prevent them from leaving the vehicle. None of the designs you’ve given have any sort of provision for that, this is understandable as it took decades for safety features to start being implemented into our cars.
    That isn’t even the horrific part of it, though.

    Its a dark night, your car hits some debris on the road, or in the track. Little guide rod gets driven out of the channel. You end up off the road, flipped over, trapped.
    Every single one of these designs has horrible night-time vision, and even worse field of vision. If you ended up on the side of the road you aren’t going to be seen, even more so for a road that has any sort of raised roadway as many interstates and highways are designed. Once you’re in a ditch, you’re gone until day.

  9. I think we’re overcomplicating this. People would mostly just cope with the weather and still wear those silly driving outfits, or maybe even have built-in weatherproof blankets in their vehicles, since their houses and offices would also not have glass windows.

    We’d have very narrow windscreens with long visors above like Lead Sleds, and multiple air deflectors on the hood. Side windows would have slats that can be opened and closed like A/C vents and there WOULD be a windscreen, made of a mesh like those ads you see on the sides of busses or the eyes on any replica of a Pixar Cars(TM) character. But instead of a flat plate with little holes, the holes would be raised such that the sheet between them is shaped like a chevron with the valley facing out. This would act as a simple check valve, severely decreasing airflow velocity. More than that, we’d probably develop fans a la Dyson, driven by the front-mounted engine, that shoot a curtain of air up through the hood, creating a bubble of separated airflow much like those shopping centers that use air waterfalls at the doors to keep the cold out. No need for light trickery or periscopes, just good ol’ airflow management.

  10. My only disagreement with this analysis is the assumption that cars would still be the primary form of transit. If people had to go through that many hoops to drive, they wouldn’t. A train or trolley doesn’t need to heed right of way to anything and similar systems would dominate out landscape instead of cars.

  11. Anyone who’s ridden a motorcycle with no fairing, on the highway, with just sunglasses knows you can get used to it, worse thing is bugs and rain, which deflectors should handle most of.

    Of course no sunglasses but as someone mentioned 80s style slit sunglasses and those fancy beekeeper hats would still be a thing, so that with some front louvers/deflectors is probably fine for folks to achieve decent speeds.

    But then everything else has to ramp up, factory stereo needs to be able to overcome the noise at speed, heat will need to get hotter than the fires or mount Doom, AC gonna need all the freons.

  12. Slit ‘glasses’ would work quite well.
    Because they’re always in front of the eyes they’ll be far more agile than using tank-like vision slots or the periscope.Also because of the tiny slit they’d give better protection against stones and bugs (but less against large objects of course)

    That said, i prefer Maxemillianmeen’s solution for it’s lateral thinking- Make the rear window a large mirror and have the driver and controls facing backwards ????

  13. I used to work for PGW (The automotive glass spinoff from PPG). It was always fun when I could get out of the office to go visit the factory. (The first place where modern ‘float glass’ was made on an industrial scale, now a brewery after the twin disasters of a mine fire and corporate restructuring closed the plant). The best part of the tour was unquestionably the windshield destructive testing cell. A 5lb steel ball would be dropped from 20ft onto a windshield. The goal was to shatter and deform the glass, but not break the inner plastic layer. In the event of an unsecured front end collision, the windshield is intended to deform and provide some cushion for the driver’s head, but still keep them in the car.

    It also taught me just how complicated windshield supply chains could be. Heading up the Mopar account, I got to see the constant battle to keep Wrangler windshields (the most broken in America thanks to how vertical they are and how they’re used) in stock and manage the rollout of the 20-some different variants of the windshield for the new (at that time) Cherokee. Every different combination of sensors required different glass. Then double it for the branded Mopar (with that little Jeep in the corner) and unbranded aftermarket versions.

    On Torch’s control arm: I’ve often wondered about something like that as an alternative to other forms of self-driving cars. Rather than have a pair of electrodes guide the driver, couldn’t it be hooked directly to the steering assembly, guiding a car through a turn, as the drawbar of a wagon turns the front wheels?

  14. What about an air curtain for the windshield? just use a giant fan that would suck the air from under the car and blow it through a thin slat at the bottom of the windshield opening, creating a barrier for the oncoming air/debris. other benefit – downforce! Or maybe store the air in a high pressure cylinder, so you can get more pressure/volume

  15. For the periscope solution, an open vent tube that went down wouldn’t _suck_ air from the cabin instead?
    And for the pinhole, what if the camera obscura was like those old time cameras, where the entire setup was the size of a box in front of the operator face, with a cloth over them?
    Maybe in that world, the entire car would be sealed, but roofs would be at shoulder length, with “turrets” for the driver and passengers – and there would be the “seeing” contraptions we discussed.
    I’ll try to figure a way to drawn and post my idea 🙂

  16. In the sixties, motorcyclists (or mopedists, more often) obviously not concerned with style used to strap on a roughly face-diameter open tube in front of their face, creating a relatively calm environment for their eyes and breathing. Although fashioned from celluloid or plastic, transparency only affected side view and probably not in a very good way. This would seem to help simplify the periscope solution and perhaps even eliminate it. Photo here: http://i261.photobucket.com/albums/ii60/relax_2008/Hjelm%201977_zpscqlbbnfx.jpg

  17. What about a metal panel that is sloped like a windshield and has lots of small holes sort of like those sun shades people used to put in the back window of pickup trucks? Sure it would let some wind in and cleaning bugs off it would be a pain, but it might make it somewhat tolerable. I don’t know if this is the same thing Yara is describing.

  18. It feels good to have found a place where we can all revel in unbowdlerised Torchinski.

    Now, theres the question of the second image, which appears to feature two gentlement on an early automobile, both leaning in to paticulary reluctant stools (not the kind with legs). Closer examination of the image seems to show some kind of commode attachment for the driver, but I fear the passenger is not so equipped. Decorum prohibits further speculation as to the outcome of this situation.
    As some other commenters have pointed out, possibly due to experience on motorcycles, that insects are also a consideration, as are some forms of precipitation, hail being chief amongst them.

  19. This is good Torchtopian.

    Sarcastic answer: Everyone would be driving Jeeps with no windows or windshield.

    Real answer: I think deflectors with mesh screens would be the common solution. This is already used in a lot of dirt racing where dirt makes a glass windshield too dirty.

    The only real issue would be rain, but then the rear glass could have louvers and the front a canopy.

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