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Hiriko smart car outside Guggenheim Bilbao

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.

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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.

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