DIY fold-up micro-EVs aim for urban mobility on demand

  • 27-Jul-2012 05:02 EDT
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The Hiriko Fold is a folding micro-EV that is designed for urban car-sharing programs.

Convincing car commuters to hop onto mass transit is no easy feat, especially if the local transit system doesn’t happen to pass right nearby. If transit seems a bit too far from your home or workplace, then you need a first- or last-mile solution.

The first- and last-mile problem has been growing steadily during the last five decades as cities expanded, explained Elizabeth Deakin, Professor of City & Regional Planning and Urban Design at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s often just too far to walk to a mass-transit station.”

Many solutions have been attempted in the past including car-pooling and bike-sharing, shuttle-bus services, station car and van schemes, and even small electric road vehicles that also run on electrified tracks in the city. All such projects ultimately proved less than successful because of inconvenience, prohibitive labor costs, a dearth of cooperating users, technical shortfalls, and the like. In some cities, levies on city-center driving have had some success.

City car-share vehicle

But more than a decade ago, researchers at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, MA, considered an alternative approach: a compact micro-EV intended purely for car-share use in the city. The late Professor William J. Mitchell and his colleagues in his Smart Cities Research Group saw this as a way to address some of the emerging problems at the crossroads of housing, mobility, and transportation.

Fleets of lightweight EVs prepositioned at strategically distributed electrical charging stations throughout cities could help solve the first- and last-mile problem of public transit. Greater use of zero-emissions cars should also help keep the urban air cleaner as well.

About a year or so later, the cooperative—the Hiriko Driving Mobility Group—embarked on a program to produce a prototype of the Hiriko Fold microcar. The consortium partnered with the MIT Media Lab and the Spanish government, which has supplied $18.5 million of the total estimated $87 million budget. The word Hiriko is from the Basque, meaning “from the city.”

Multi-vehicle parking spots

At first glance the Hiriko Fold resembles other electric microcars that car designers have come up with in the last few years. But the new pod-like EV comes packed with new features, said Carlos Fernandez Isoird, Coordinator-General at the Hiriko group. Its unique fold-up body, for example, can "suck in" its front and rear modules, enabling the 8 ft (2.5 m) long car to shrink to a scant 5 ft (1.5 m) when it is parked, less than half the length of a full-size SUV. About three and a half Folds could fit in a standard parking space.

Like some vintage European ultracompacts, both driver and passenger enter and exit through a front windshield that doubles as the car’s sole door/hatch. Furthermore, the Fold’s independently controlled "robot wheels" can turn 60 degrees in either direction, which enables the vehicle to spin on its central axis or travel sideways, rendering parallel-parking easy.

The city car’s designers replaced the conventional steering wheel as well as acceleration and braking controls with an aircraft-yoke-like mechanism. Push the control forward and the car will speed up; pull it back and the car will slow down; turn it left or right and the car will turn.

The EV will be powered by lithium-ion batteries that can be recharged in about 15 minutes. Engineers placed the car’s battery pack in the floor to keep the center of gravity low to enhance road stability, Fernandez Isoird said. The four in-wheel electric motors give the car a maximum power output of 15 kW.

The Hiriko Fold will feature a top speed of 31 mph (50 km/h), which is sufficient for urban driving, and a maximum range of about 75 mi (120 km).

Because the Fold will have a mass less than 1100 lb (500 kg), it is to be registered as a quadricycle—which means that drivers in some countries will not need a license.

Vehicle "mules" of the Hiriko Fold design successfully withstood in-house crash- and safety-testing earlier this year, he said. Although it is critical that the lightweight car can safely endure a crash, it won’t have to survive highway speed accidents. Engineers have therefore configured the structure to operate in its slower, urban traffic context. The Fold’s folding chassis design, in fact, enhances its ability to absorb impact energy.

José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, introduced an early version of the Hiriko Fold in late January of this year, calling it a “systematic solution to major societal challenges.” And starting a few months ago, the group began a trial manufacturing run at Vitoria-Gasteiz, outside of Bilbao, said Fernandez Isoird.

Manufacture and sales

The collective has completed building 20 vehicles for showing and further testing. Three different architectures are on the way: the Fold, the Alai (a convertible version), and the Laga (a small truck). Several of the first production lot will be sent during the summer to a couple of European cities to begin tests by potential customers.

The Hiriko Fold is scheduled for sale in 2013 for around $16,400 (€12,500). Not what anyone would call cheap, but the Basque consortium hopes to sell the mini-EV as "snap-together" modules to the cities, where local workers can assemble them. In addition to providing hometown jobs, this approach means that the vehicles can be customized for each locality. A city with many hills could, for example, order higher performance batteries and motors to handle the extra strain.

The group’s plan is to sell the tiny two-seaters to municipalities in Europe and elsewhere including Barcelona, Berlin, Malmö, San Francisco, and Vitoria-Gasteiz. Meanwhile, transport managers in the Basque biosphere reserve of Urdaibai, the Spanish island of Ibiza, as well as Hong Kong and Florianópolis in Brazil have inquired about shared-use car systems.

Smart car-share system

“In bike-sharing systems, the bicycles can be loaded on trucks for redistribution around town, but that’s hard to do with cars,” said Kent Larson, Director of MIT Media Lab’s Changing Places Group, who succeeded Mitchell as the project’s lead researcher. “We realized that various dynamic incentives would be needed to encourage users to pick up and drop off cars in such a way as to automatically balance the system and make them available throughout the area.” Credits or product giveaways could help smooth demand imbalances while interactive graphical user interfaces could communicate location-based price information to drivers.

This kind of self-organizing, car-share system is to rely on sophisticated smartphone technology and intelligent fleet-management techniques that are implemented through distributed sensor networks, pattern-recognition algorithms, and dynamic-pricing schemes to provide drivers with incentives to return the cars to charging stations where other users can easily pick them up, thus balancing the system.

Company planners estimate that establishing such a transport system in a city the size of Barcelona would require about 400 vehicles in the city center. Expansion to 6000 vehicles would “cover all of the metropolitan area,” Fernandez Isoird said. “This means providing one vehicle per 1,000 inhabitants to service the public transport systems, taxis, and private users.”

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