Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Hiriko smart car outside Guggenheim Bilbao

Hiriko CityCars line up outside the Guggenheim Bilbao in this artist's conception of the foldable vehicle.

Is Driving One of the Tiniest Cars in the World In Your Future?

• July 11, 2012 • 4:00 AM

Hiriko CityCars line up outside the Guggenheim Bilbao in this artist's conception of the foldable vehicle.

A minuscule car that folds up to just 60 inches, made by MIT’s media lab, will be deployed in cities around the world for neighborly sharing.

Beyond bike-share, easier than Zipcar, the next new thing in getting around town with a light carbon footprint may be Hiriko, a two-passenger electric vehicle developed by the Changing Places research group at MIT’s Media Lab. A production run of 20 prototypes begins next year at Vitoria Gasteiz, in northern Spain. (Hiriko means “urban” in Basque.) But it may be several years before they see wide use.

Anyway, don’t dream of buying one of your own. The wee cars aren’t meant for private ownership. Instead they will be stationed in fleets, as complements to city transit systems. Likely first locations include Barcelona, Berlin, Malmö, Hong Kong, and San Francisco.

[youtube]jZKWl34N3O0[/youtube]

Hirikos measure 100 inches long, compared to a two-door Mini Cooper’s 146. But for parking they collapse to just 60 inches, and nest together like shopping carts. Drivers use them like shared bikes, picking up a car at a Hiriko depot near where they’re coming from, and dropping it at one near their destination. Thus they address the “last mile” problem of mass transit and “might be most useful at the edges of cities where the transit network is sparse,” explains architect Kent Larson, director of the MIT research group. “In an inner city where it’s very walkable to begin with and then you have good trams or subways or buses, you don’t need the vehicles so much. But at the edges you have a desperate need for additional mobility.”

The car’s miniature size, light weight, and ability to fold are achieved by eliminating the bulky mechanical linkages conventional cars use for acceleration, braking, and steering. In their place, “by-wire” technology transmits information electronically to the four wheels from the driver, who manipulates a yoke much like an airplane pilot does. The wheels are incorporated into identical modules along with electric motors for propulsion. They also control steering and braking. Since all four swivel, the car can pivot on its own axis. Entirely battery powered, it can travel 70 miles per charge.

Hiriko’s modular quality makes for economy of scale; the cars will be priced at about $16,000 each. And the cars can be modified for conditions where they’ll be used. “For San Francisco, with its hills, you’d have probably more powerful wheel motors and bigger batteries,” Larson suggests. “You might have a heating element in Malmö that keeps the system warm. Batteries don’t like to get cold.”

When is Hiriko coming? Sometime after the day after tomorrow.

“You need a public that is willing to adopt new ideas, and you need a local government that’s willing to endorse and support them,” Larson says. “You find both of those in Hong Kong and San Francisco,” which is why those cities are being considered. “San Francisco is globally recognized for its leading public policies towards a zero emissions ecosystem,” adds Gorka Espiau Idoiaga, head of international programs for Hiriko. “Hong Kong has almost no space for private parking in the city and new shared solutions are needed.”

But alas, there are legal challenges to resolve. “Currently the law does not allow you to have by-wire steering without mechanical backup,” says Ryan Chin, a Ph.D. candidate who serves as project manager for the car’s development. Also, “a lot of cities have a class of vehicle called the neighborhood electric vehicle [NEV] which can operate at lower speeds, and not on the highway,” Chin explains. Typically, these are golf carts. “The U.S. and other countries need to create a new vehicle class which is neither NEV nor passenger vehicle but in between.”

How does an architect like Larson end up directing the invention of a car? With a holistic approach to urbanism. “How to improve cities by having shared-use vehicles, by having transformable architecture,” he says, “how to solve societal problems by dramatically increasing the performance and utilization rate of these systems while improving people’s lives—that’s our vision.”

Jonathan Lerner
Jonathan Lerner writes on architecture, urbanism, art, design and travel for national magazines and is a communications consultant for clients in the design industries. He is the author of several novels, including "Alex Underground," set in the radical underground of the 1970s, when Lerner was a founding member of the Weather Underground. He lives in New York City.

More From Jonathan Lerner

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 23 • 6:22 AM

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.


September 23 • 6:00 AM

The Heist: How Visitors Stole a National Monument

Fossil Cycad National Monument was home to one of the world’s greatest collections of fossilized cycadeoids—until visitors carried them all away.


September 23 • 4:00 AM

Fifty Shades of Meh

New research refutes the notion that reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy strongly impacts women’s sexual behavior.


September 23 • 2:00 AM

The Portlandia Paradox

Oregon’s largest city is full of overeducated and underemployed young people.


September 22 • 4:00 PM

The Overly Harsh and Out-of-Date Law That’s So Difficult on Debtors

A 1968 federal law allows collectors to take 25 percent of debtors’ wages, or every penny in their bank accounts.


September 22 • 2:00 PM

NFL Players Are More Law Abiding Than Average Men

According to records kept by USA Today, 2.53 percent of players are arrested in any given year.


September 22 • 12:00 PM

Freaking Out About Outliers: When the Polls Are Way Off

The idea of such a small number of people being used to predict how millions will vote sometimes irks observers, but it’s actually a very reliable process—most of the time.


September 22 • 10:00 AM

The Imagined Sex Worker

The stigma against black sex workers can reinforce stigmas against all black women and all sex workers.


September 22 • 9:54 AM

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.


September 22 • 8:00 AM

The NFL, the Military, and the Problem With Masculine Institutions

Both the NFL and the U.S. military cultivate and reward a form of hyper-violent masculinity. The consequences of doing so have never been more obvious.


September 22 • 6:00 AM

Zombies in the Quad: The Trouble With Elite Education

William Deresiewicz’s new book, Excellent Sheep, is in part, he says, a letter to his younger, more privileged self.


September 22 • 4:02 AM

You’re Going to Die! So Buy Now!

New research finds inserting reminders of our mortality into advertisements is a surprisingly effective strategy to sell products.



September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.


Follow us


On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

The Big One

One in three tourists to Jamaica reports getting harassed; half of them are hassled to buy drugs. September/October 2014 new-big-one-4

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.