Asleep near the wheel: Another reason for car ownership

Phil Berg

In a display of automotive ingenuity, 28-year-old Eileah Ohning spent one year living inside a silver 2004 Acura TL sedan in New York City, saving up enough money from her waitress job to pay off her $42,000 OSU college debt in full, she told a TEDx audience last August.

“I’m a millennial, the largest, most-educated and underpaid and in-debt generation. Debt is like a prison sentence and suddenly it was just gone.” Moving up last year, she bought a van. “I can park wherever I like as long as you don’t know there’s a tiny house inside of it.”

Sleeping in cars is not new. Henry Ford and friends Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison and John Burroughs used converted Model Ts to camp during their 1916-18 span of road-tripping, when the only motel chains in the nation served mostly railroad depots. Ford and friends called themselves the “Vagabonds,” and used the publicity to successfully promote federal funding of highways.

Television comedian Jay Leno used to sleep in a 1955 Buick Roadmaster behind the Comedy Store in Hollywood, following his performances there in the 1970s. “It’s a big car, you know, you could sleep in it and everything. I didn’t have an apartment, I bought this before I had a place to live,” he said. Today he owns almost 200 cars, and still has the Roadmaster.

My son recently negotiated the purchase of his first car, and the first question I asked him was, “Will you be able to sleep in it?” The Toyota MR2 Spyder he bought is a two-seater originally owned by a young couple in San Francisco, who said they had to sell the tiny car when they had their first child. My son isn’t planning to sleep in it, but he has mentioned that he plans to eventually tow a tiny Boler vintage camping trailer behind it for that purpose.

I’m guessing my son got the idea from family stories: On the eve of my moving to Detroit back in the 1980s, I retired the Beetle I had been using as a tiny camper while covering auto racing circuits full time.

My explanation of the Beetle as a housing choice then was that many racetracks were far into the boonies, so I built a movable platform that covered where the backseat used to be, which turned lengthwise once the passenger seat was slid out.

Local automotive copywriter and colleague Keith Price recalled last month that the staff of Crain Communication’s Autoweek magazine had been advised of my new position there in a meeting where everyone was informed I was “a motorsports journalist who lived in a Beetle.”

To replace my worn-out Beetle, I had a choice between two cars of the same price that caught my eye: A Porsche 914 mid-engine two-seater in the used lot at IMSA championship racers Bobby and Tommy Archer’s Duluth AMC/Renault dealership, or a newer Volkswagen Scirocco Series 1 front-drive hatchback.

I picked the Scirocco, for one single reason: I could sleep in it. Only rarely do I regret the choice.

Since then I’ve slept in a lot of cars: Mazda CX-5, Audi 5000, BMW M3 and Z3, Honda Civic, Honda Prelude, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Acura Integra, Pontiac Fiero, Mercury Merkur Scorpio. And I’m not counting Chrysler, Mazda, VW and Chevrolet minivans because they’re a cinch for 40 winks.

Today’s mobility industry, however, doesn’t cover much about why young people might not prefer home ownership over automobile ownership:

“Young people who are just starting to drive would be good candidates to consider car-sharing over ownership. It could be a good idea to talk them out of buying cars. And that might be an easier sell before they’ve started getting used to having their own cars,” said Marietta Gelfort, a car-sharing analyst for the Arlington County Department of Environmental Services, in Mobility Lab Express, a newsletter funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Virginia’s DOT.

Living in a car might not occur to social scientists as a viable lifestyle choice because it’s not easy, and in many places it’s not legal. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, because it forces people to drive instead of sleep: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recorded 41,000 injuries from drowsy driving-related crashes between 2009 and 2013, and 846 deaths in 2014, while the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimates that 300,000 crashes every year involve a drowsy driver, and contribute to up to 6,400 deaths.

That figure was quoted in a forum held in May 2016 at Harvard University by sleep researcher Charles Czeisler. He said “sleep-deficient driving” is a result of drivers’ adrenaline levels preventing them from being aware they are drowsy.

Michigan allows sleeping in a car (not all states do), and I’ve spoken to local folks who make use of Walmart and truck stop parking lots for a night of shut-eye, although many municipalities require would-be car nappers to pay for motel rooms and campground spaces.

Young folks have pointed me toward a potential solution courtesy of smartphone technology: It’s called, a budget knockoff of Except there’s a flaw: You need a car to get to these places to sleep.