Not exactly the last of the Interceptors, but...

It’s the little things that can do you in, and watching The Walking Dead recently I noticed that the group have made some serious mistakes in choice of vehicle for their road trip. Who is responsible for their vehicular management? That sanctimonious old meddler, Dale, of course. They really need to start viewing him as “just another mouth to feed.” Here is why they have made bad vehicle choices, and what I consider to be good choices for the zombie apocalypse road trip.

The Winnebago, the hi-tech liability and the chopper

The Walking Dead‘s group drive across America in a Winnebago camper van, a couple of urban runabouts and a Harley Davidson. Three of their four vehicles are bad choices: the Winnebago, the modern urban runabout, and the Harley. Their overall group transport strategy is flawed because the Winnebago is carrying too heavy a load and they haven’t built in any redundancy to account for it. Specific reasons for the flaws in each vehicle are easily identified.

The Winnebago

This is the big mistake in the road trip plan. The Winnebago has many flaws:

  • It carries too much material, which means that if it breaks down in a high-risk area (near a town or an obviously infected area) the group won’t have time to empty it before they need to move on. They’ll have to leave a lot of important gear behind if they’re in a hurry, because they have too much stashed in one vehicle
  • It’s not manoeuvrable, so when they reach traffic jams or narrow roads they have to go around. Worse still, if they see trouble ahead and need to turn around in a hurry, they need to do a three point turn rather than a u-turn. To avoid this they need to stay on large, wide roads which are likely to be heavily infested.
  • It’s inefficient, so that despite its large size it only really carries a couple of passengers and beds. As a hospital vehicle it’s little better than a normal van, but it also carries less people than a mini bus. Furthermore, all the heavy fittings and camping style are simply a waste of space. They won’t use the toilet, and they could get by perfectly well with camp chairs rather than heavy fixed tables. All this stuff is taking up space and using fuel but providing little comfort. As a source of shelter it’s not large enough for the whole group, yet the whole group is constrained in road choice by its size
  • It’s noisy and has high wind resistance, meaning it draws attention to the group and uses a lot of fuel. Fuel efficiency may not be a long-term issue in a world depleted of competition, but in moving between gas stations and fuel sources it is crucial. If you’re going to use a heavy, fuel inefficient vehicle you need good reason
  • It’s heavy: hard to push out of the road, hard to replace wheels

The worst case scenarios involving the Winnebago arise from the combination of its lack of manoeuvrability and its excessive storage usage. On a narrow road, if the group see zombie trouble up ahead they will need to turn the Winnebago around, running the risk that it will get bogged off-road. This could potentially trap other cars between the Winnebago and the zombie horde, meaning loss of those cars too. But even if this doesn’t happen, bogging the vehicle down will mean having to empty it into the other cars. This will take a long time, and as the zombies approach the group will have to choose to abandon large amounts of stuff. This wouldn’t happen if that stuff had been distributed between more, smaller vehicles.

The urban runabout

The group also has a green hatchback, quite modern, that is probably highly fuel efficient, comfortable, reliable and quiet. This is overall a good choice of vehicle, but it has a significant downside: it’s too modern. Modern cars can’t be easily repaired by unskilled users, and often require computer diagnostics and specialist service centres, sometimes affiliated with the company that sells the car. Also, parts are often specific to the car and can’t be scavenged. This means that any breakdown more serious than a simple puncture will put the car out of action. That’s fine if your group has significant redundancy, but the group in the Walking Dead don’t have this luxury.

The Harley Davidson

The Harley is probably a good idea for long road trips – I get the impression that these bikes are designed for comfort in long journeys. It also has the potential to carry a rider fairly comfortably on pillion, and carry a small amount of luggage, so is a good survival tool. But it suffers from the drawback that all motorbikes do: it’s uncovered, so dangerous. However, it lacks the advantages of other smaller bikes: it doesn’t have the speed, manoeuvrability and acceleration of a road bike, nor does it have the off road capabilities of an off-road bike. It’s also likely to be noisy and less fuel efficient than other bikes. What’s its use? If it is to be used for long range reconnaissance, a road bike – extremely fast, highly manoeuvrable and quieter – would be a better option, since it will be able to travel far ahead of the group in a short time, and escape any trouble. If short-range off-road scouting is necessary, then a standard farm bike would be better. This can be used to get through partially-obstructed regions (e.g. old road blocks and traffic jams) easily, is highly manoeuvrable so can be turned around quickly to escape sudden gangs of zombies, and can go off-road to investigate old houses and farms. In the hands of an experienced motor-crosser it can even potentially go over some obstacles, though at high risk. A Harley is only good for open-road cruising. But you can do that much, much more safely in a car, which at least has the advantage of seat belts.

The problem of redundancy and overloading

Another significant problem arises for this group from the combination of lack of redundancy and overloading of the Winnebago. If the Winnebago breaks down irreparably, the group will need to move all the stuff out of it into just two urban runabouts, which also need to transport all the people in the group. Short of the obvious solution – shooting Dale for the sanctimonious moralizing loser that he is and using his seat for storage – the group is going to face a hard choice between supplies and people, because their two small cars won’t have enough room for both. This choice is going to probably have to be made in a hurry, and will lead to the loss of a significant amount of important material. If one of the other runabouts dies, the problem is not so severe but they will be immediately forced to hunt for a new car, even if the only locally available cars are in very dangerous settings. They have no choice in this – if one of their runabouts fails and then the Winnebago breaks down in a dangerous place, they won’t have sufficient capacity to take the whole group to safety and will have to repair the Winnebago under pressure. Bad move.

Furthermore, lack of small vehicles means they don’t have the ability to circle the vehicles at night – not a perfect defense tactic but an important part of safe camping techniques. And of course, they don’t have a spare vehicle to use to block a street or set alight as a barrier.

The ideal road trip strategy

Cars offer the benefits of mobility, shelter and security. However, on a road trip one runs the risk of becoming stranded between locations with no source of supplies, so the key to any safe zombie apocalypse road trip is redundancy. Ideally you need lots of small cars with the following properties:

  • Fuel efficiency
  • Good storage space
  • Manoeuvrable
  • Easily pushed, for jump-starting or getting out of the way
  • Disposable
  • Easily accessible (four doors!)
  • Readily accessible spare parts

The thought of hooning along post-apocalyptic open roads in a Nissan Fairlady may appeal, but it has very few advantages. The group should choose cars that meet most of the above conditions, and ideally some of these vehicles should be able to be used as excess storage spaces, shelters, or hospital vehicles. Thus a good combination would be VW kombi vans (for space, shelter and repairability) or similar vans, four-door utilities (for storage and convertability), and older four-door hatchbacks. For the utes, ideally they would be the sort of ute that gets used as a “technical” by somali warlords – so an older Toyota or Subaru, something reliable and trustworthy that can use parts from any old car and can itself be cannibalized.

The group should have more vehicles than it needs to carry all its materials and all its people, and some of them (the kombi vans) should be sufficient to provide shelter and security in a pinch (bad weather, sudden unexpected zombie onset). All of them should be able to turn easily to get out of trouble, and be pushable by two adults. All the vehicles should carry enough supplies to be self-sufficient for a short time: basic materials for the engine (pipe, radiator, spark plug, battery, jump cables); a couple of days’ food; water; fuel; basic medical supplies. This means that if any one vehicle needs to be abandoned its contents can be stripped out quickly and moved to another vehicle, but can also be abandoned un-stripped without catastrophic loss of vital materials. All back seats should be left empty and the doors unlocked, for rapid transfer of people from broken cars in an emergency. The utes can be used to carry excess material that isn’t so important and can be dumped where necessary; the utes can also be used as emergency evacuation vehicles or even ambulances where things go wrong. All vehicles should be given a priority (High, Medium or Low) and this should be painted on bonnet and doors so that everyone knows which vehicle to head for if not all vehicles can be saved. The group should travel at the optimal speed for fuel efficiency, well spaced out, and stop regularly to rest and check maps – you never know when you might need to turn around, so it’s good for everyone in the group to be aware of potential hazards in the road behind. All vehicles should be driven with at most 2 people in them (to ensure redundancy) and single occupancy vehicles should be avoided – it’s not fuel efficient and it opens the risk of loss of communication. Ideally some kind of radio contact should be maintained between vehicles – hourly checking in, regular reports, etc.

All vehicles should also be fitted with a usable sharp piercing implement such as a sharpened iron spike by every door, so that zombies that break through window glass can be dealt with easily. When driving, everyone should wear seat belts – what’s the point of surviving the apocalypse only to die in a low-velocity car crash? Or worse, survive but be put down like a dog by your comrades because of a lack of suitable medical equipment to handle serious injuries… Finally, motorbikes should only be used if the group really sees a need for single-person reconnaissance. Otherwise they’re a dangerous luxury vehicle that should be avoided.

I think if a group follows these principles it will be able to survive longer on the open road and escape from even quite dangerous and pressing situations without significant lives or material. As it stands the group in The Walking Dead are one breakdown away from either losing a significant load of supplies and/or having to abandon people; or becoming lunch. Don’t make their mistakes, and instead adopt an industrial design approach to your post-apocalyptic convoy: share the load-bearing and ensure redundancy.

A note on the zombie road-trip of the future

As the world shifts to a low-carbon future, cars are going to become electric. In the further future they may even become robot driven. This means that sometime in the far future, the apocalypse will see a collapse from a much higher-tech society than we have now, to a much lower-tech society, with no pause in the Mad Max zone. Isn’t that interesting?