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The human race has sent robots to Mars, dived to the wreck of the Titanic and designed smart bombs that can arrow down a chimney from half a world away. We have also managed to come up with fuel injection, Bluetooth and the airbag. So why do our cars still have such lousy winter floor mats?

As engineering challenges go, protecting the foot wells of a vehicle doesn't seem that tough. Or is it? As I surveyed the floors of our trusty Honda a while ago, I realized that they hadn't received much protection from the mats that were supposed to be their appointed guardians – the carpets were soggy and foul, with nasty white salt stains that gave them the look of an Appaloosa horse that had come down with a terminal skin disease.

The cosmetics were bad enough. But the real problems were far deeper. Salt-laden water had worked its way through the Honda's carpets to the steel floors beneath, creating millions of tiny corrosion spores that would gradually consume the car.

Looking into the foot wells of our Honda made me feel like a doctor journeying to the Valley of the Lepers – before me was a dismal grotto of rusting steel and blooming mould colonies. But why were things so bad? I have always been a dutiful automotive steward, installing waterproof mats each fall before the snow and salt arrived. I had relied on the mats to do a simple job: to keep water from spilling over onto the carpets they were sworn to protect. And they had failed.

There had to be a better way.

As a lifelong gear head, I've always enjoyed a good engineering challenge, but I have to admit that I've never devoted much intellectual energy to the floor mat problem. (Fooling around with floor mats is a lot less interesting than bolting in a high-lift camshaft or pondering a set of titanium exhaust headers, after all.) Floor mats get ignored because they are humble devices that do a thankless job – most drivers pay about as much attention to their winter floor mats as Louis XV did to the servants who dealt with his chamber pot.

But that doesn't mean the floor mat's job isn't important. And I am happy to report that my days of mat ignorance are now over. In my garage is a stack of floor mats that I am subjecting to a series of road tests. (I will report back soon to let you know how they fared.)

In the meantime, I have devoted myself to the study of the winter floor mat, and have come to the conclusion that it is one of the least-perfected components of the modern car. Although there are some advanced solutions out there (more on this later), most winter mats are brutally crude devices. Two basic designs prevail – the solid plastic mat, and carpets backed with a layer of plastic that keeps water from running through.

I've always gone with solid plastic mats, since they seem to offer the most protection. But looks can be deceiving. To work well, a mat needs to fit closely in the foot well, and have raised edges that keep melted snow from running over and into the carpet below. But this design creates a further problem – the water that collects on the mat turns it into a miniature swimming pool that soaks the bottom of your pants. To overcome this, many mats are designed with deep ribs that raise your feet and pant legs above the water level.

The biggest failure with most solid mats is that they don't fit the foot well closely. (The vast majority are generic, shaped to fit a wide variety of cars, so the fit is imprecise.) Some can be trimmed, but this means that the design is compromised in favour of universal fit, and in most cars, the raised lips won't end up in the right place.

A poorly functioning solid mat can be worse than no mat at all – water runs over the sides, soaks into the carpet, and remains trapped there for a long time, since the solid plastic layer above retards evaporation. And even the best solid mat needs to be emptied occasionally, so water doesn't accumulate and overflow.

Some drivers eschew solid plastic mats altogether, preferring to use a thick carpet with a waterproof backing. Although these carpeted winter mats look less confidence-inspiring than solid plastic ones, they work on a different principle: the carpet soaks up water like a sponge, and the plastic backing keeps it away from the floor underneath. I've been driving a Lexus with these mats recently, and their performance is surprisingly good, provided that people knock most of the snow off their feet before they get in. But they're still not a perfect solution.

Designing a high-performance winter floor mat is far from simple. Most floor mats are commodity items – they must fit a huge variety of cars, and sell for a low price. They must fit around obstacles that include seat tracks, floor tunnels, heat outlets and trunk release levers. There must be no chance of blocking the car's pedals (as Toyota learned the hard way in 2009). There is a remote chance that you will find a generic mat that fits your car perfectly. But don't count on it.

There is another approach altogether – moulding a solid-plastic mat that fits a car exactly. This is the approach taken by a U.S. company that makes a product called the Floor Liner. Each car's floor is scanned with a laser that measures hundreds of dimensions, following every last bump, dip, joggle and protrusion. This laser scan is used to mill a three-dimensional mould in solid metal. The mould is used to form custom plastic floor mats that drop into your foot wells like little wading pools. As you might expect, this costs many times more than a generic floor mat.

Is it overkill? We'll see in my road tests. I'll be back soon with the floor mat lowdown.

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