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Microcities: Introducing the Modular, Foldable Electric Car


It may be tiny, but it's driving a big vision. This electric vehicle from MIT is the first commercial stage of a new urban transport system. It's designed to give city dwellers the freedom of individual transport, without the stress of tailbacks and endless searches for parking spaces.

The car has been branded Hiriko – the Basque word for 'urban' – by the (Spanish) Basque investment group Denokinn, which has partnered MIT to take it to the road. Kicking off with a trial production of 20 cars and a pilot programme in Vitoria Gasteiz, near Bilbao, Denokinn plans to bring the car to cities around the world, targeting a vehicle price of €12,500 if sold to private individuals. Barcelona, Berlin and San Francisco have also signed up for trial runs.

The smartest element of the car itself is the wheels. Each one combines an integrated electric motor, steering, suspension and braking, so they don't require a drivetrain or transmission. This means the cars can fold up to park, stacking three to a standard space. And, as all four wheels can turn, they can spin on their axis like ballerinas – much more elegant than the neatest three-point turns.

The whole car has a modular design that makes for easy upgrades, assembly and maintenance, according to Ryan Chin, a researcher at MIT. Smarter still is the mobile network which means these cars can communicate with each other and with smartphones – ideal for sharing schemes, along the lines of Paris' Autolib [see 'Paris hosts the world's first municipal EV hire scheme']. The range is 100km, plenty for short city hops.

But whatever the fate of the car, we're likely to see more smart wheels on the road, integrated into other vehicles, such as light trucks. And the more applications, the cheaper they'll be.

This Big City's Megacities/Microcities series runs throughout May.

By John Eischeid at Green Futures, the magazine of independent sustainability experts Forum for the Future.